– Encouraging transparency and accountability : Preventing corruption
– Statute to promote citizen participation in Good Governance
International Conference on RTI
The International Conference on RTI, themed ‘Empowering Citizens through RTI – the first year’ was held at the Institute of Policy Studies, organised by the Sri Lanka Press Institute in collaboration with the Royal Norwegian Embassy.
The two day conference had seven thematic sessions on risk and safety of information seekers, privacy data protection, the role of civil society and media, future of RTI law and technicalities in information disclosure. RTI experts from Norway, India, Mexico, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar, along with Sri Lankan experts from the RTI Commission, advocates from the civil society organisations, good governance promoters and leading journalists spoke at these thematic sessions.
The nodal ministry to implement RTI is the Ministry of Mass Media & Finance
The Right to Information Act in Sri Lanka continues with its second year still facing obstacles, criticisms and compliments equally. Reviewing the progress within the first year of implementation of the Right To Information (RTI) Act, an International Conference – themed ‘Empowering Citizens through RTI – the first year’ was held recently in Colombo with the participation of local and international experts.
Among the series of thematic sessions of the conference, the highlight was the peoples’ power in RTI. Peoples’ stories across the globe were discussed at the conference as the civil society activists and RTI advocates shared their knowledge and lessons learnt. It was not just about the success or the failures. Overcoming the fear of questioning the power and the powerful, value of the collective effort, gathering proof against corruption and importance of being an enlightened citizen were emphasised.
Commended by the regional and international experts for the progressive year of the Sri Lankan RTI process, many agreed and pointed out the need to expand and enhancing the public awareness and their active participation.
Addressing the gathering Chairman of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) Mr. Kumar Nadesan highlighted the importance of sharing international and regional lessons learnt in implementing similar laws in order to derive strategies used in tackling local implementation challenges of the law.
“It is important for us to know the experiences of other countries which are implementing similar laws. So that we can learn from them about strategies used to tackle implementation challenges.”
The preamble to the RTI Act clearly defines the commitment of the law, explained Mr. Nadesan. Commenting further he added that the A
Purpose of RTI Preamble
WHEREAS the Constitution guarantees the right of access to information in Article 14A thereof and there exists a need to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public authorities by giving effect to the right of access to information and thereby promote a society in which the people of Sri Lanka would be able to more fully participate in public life through combating corruption and promoting accountability and good governance.
ct establishes the constitutional guarantee to the right of access to information, which is a pledge made by the Government during its run for elections. “It accentuates need to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public authorities,” he pointed out. RTI is the law that enables Sri Lankans to fully participate in public life through combating corruption and promoting accountability and good governance,” emphasised Mr. Nadesan.
“The public should move in applying the law. And its journalists who can motivate the public to use RTI so that we can ensure that RTI becomes a success,” he said.
“In fact the struggle to establish RTI in Sri Lanka expands over nearly two and a half decades. In this time period, it was clearly declared particularly in the Colombo Declaration of 1998 for media freedom and social responsibility when it was issued by the five main media organisations of the country,” said Mr. Nadesan continuing to recap the long years of efforts made to establish RTI.
Clause 2.1 of the Colombo Declaration of 1998 states; “The Official Secrets Act which defines official secrets vaguely and broadly should be repealed and a Freedom of Information Act be enacted where disclosure of information will be the norm and secrecy the exception.”
The RTI became a reality, after these long years of struggle, because the media and the civil society kept the flame of hope burning,” added Mr. Nadesan.
Speaking at the event H. E. Thorbjørn Gaustadsæther, the Ambassador to the Royal Norwegian Embassy pointed out that RTI coupled with Freedom of Expression, is the key to the happiness and satisfaction of the citizens of any country.
Commending on the success of the conference the Ambassador said the theme – Empowering citizens with RTI – describes accurately what RTI laws are designed to do.
He emphasised that the RTI is essential to the democratic functioning of any society and the well being of any citizen. “RTI coupled with Freedom of Expression go hand in hand with happiness and satisfaction of the citizens of any country,” he added.
Further he commented that RTI tends to increase civil society actors and NGOs ability to hold national authorities accountable for their actions and the management of public finances. “Transparency and openness in Government procedures creates an environment of trust and a culture of integrity,” the Ambassador emphasised.
Further he pointed out that, while celebrating this milestone, it is important to bear in mind that there is a long way to go in terms of raising awareness on RTI.
“The driving force for an effective implementation of an RTI law will have to be civil society and mass media. They have a major role in raising awareness about procedures for seeking and obtaining information,” emphasised the Ambassador.
Strengthening legal provisions to pressurize the Government to make as much as its information available, or in other words proactive disclosure of state information, was much discussed among the activists and experts at the conference as another tool that empower the public and promote transparency and accountability of the Government.
Anjali Bharadwaj, Co-convener National Campaign for People’s Right to Information of India pointed out many plus and minus of proactive disclosure with her experience as a strong RTI activist with many years of experience working with the grass root level of the Indian society.
Bharadwaj explained that in India, proactive disclosure is the most important method of providing information but it is the worst implemented of provisions due to lack of accountability for compliance. “The law is silent on who should be made responsible,” she added.
Yet, in India, despite fear and ambiguity, annually 46 million Indians file RTI applications and mostly by the poorest and the marginalised of the community.
During public awareness campaigns conducted by her organisation promoting RTI, women in the audience get up and ask whether they, with this law, can get their dry ration supply back or elderly on rectifying their pension anomalies?
“Through RTI, people dwelling in the slums of New Delhi, for the first time in their life, managed to find proof against corruption that has been happening for years with their dry ration supply.” she explained elaborating peoples’ unending efforts. Finally, amidst threats, people in these localities managed to end the corrupt practice and clandestine deals between shopkeepers and the Food Department officials by imposing pressure on the Government using the information they collected through the RTI.
“People with power will threaten the common man and woman who use RTI, since constant use of this law do interrupt their corrupt practices and secret business deals,” added Bharadwaj. “ People did not confine only to complaints but carried out public hearings and informed media about the corruption until the malpractices were corrected,” she said continuing with the stories of common women and men of India.
“It is always people who are not connected to power, and extremely vulnerable had been fighting against corruption and manged to fulfill their basic rights which were violated for a long time due to these types of mass scale corruptions,” emphasised Bharadwaj.
Reiterating the importance of proactive disclosure Bharadwaj added that in India, 70% of the information sought out by citizens are information that should have been made available by the Government according to the existing legal provisions. “There is a huge pressure from the people, those who use RTI effectively, to put in place a grievance redress and anti corruption framework,” she added.
Highlighting the brave efforts of Sri Lankans in using RTI, Sankhitha Gunarathne, Right to Information manager of Transparency International of Sri Lanka said it has been such an inspiration to work with RTI loving people at the grass root level.
“There are many success and inspiring stories,” she said as she started elaborating stories of the people. In one such case a person from Vavuniya, who was seeking information about housing loans had to face an insensitive public official who ordered the requester to write a letter of apology for filing a RTI application. “The public official has asked the requester to pick either the RTI application or his housing loan lined up for approval,” she said. As the case came under police investigations the public officials became silent and the matter got dismissed later, she added.
In another case from Moneragala, a woman was subjected to public shaming by the Grama Niladhari for requesting details of beneficiaries receiving drought relief items from the Divisional Secretariat. “The Transparency International supported her through out the process yet such resistance from the public officials continued to report from areas such as Kinniya in Trincomalee and Akkaripattu in Batticaloa as well,” she pointed out. Fortunately, Sri Lankans still continue using RTI, slowly but steadily.
Another strong social activist Chamindha Rajakaruna, Executive Director of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement also pointed out from his experience in working with vulnerable communities that many who filed RTI applications through his organisation were very poor people who desperately wanted information on subsidy programmes that were supposed to benefit them.
“Middle class is comfortable with the notion of getting their work done through a known contact in government. But this is not an advantage that poor people have,” he stressed.
Pointing out current trade union actions, he added, that we are not yet mature enough to use RTI instead of trade union strikes.
“RTI in Sri Lanka is a very strong tool. But we need to address structural problems and barriers to RTI. If we do not do anything about them then lasting change will not come about in our country,” said Rajakaruna.
Bringing the Indian RTI context in to highlight, Amrita Johri from the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information, said that civil society was involved in the law-making exercise from the very beginning. “The articulation of the need for RTI came from the rural poor communities who saw the link to their rights and entitlements such as minimum wages right to food etc. As the demand grew lots of other people jumped in,” she explained adding that Dalit groups, land rights groups, groups opposing illegal mining are extensively using RTI.
In an answer to a question raised from the audience Johri said that civil society acts together in India to oppose dilution of the law even though they may have disagreement on other issues. She emphasised that it is important to have a national campaign to prevent dilution of the RTI law, if any arises.
“RTI is being used effectively seems to be the reason why government wants to dilute it. So congratulate yourselves for that. It is important to have a national campaign to defend the law form dilution,” added Johri.
Sharing her experience in working with grass root level groups and the general public, Johri added that Civil society activists must enlighten the people that we are not seeking information for the sake of information but it is about seeking accountability and must guide the communities to do so.
Representing Mexico, the country with the world’s best RTI law, Mr. Munoz Dias, Director General Legal Affairs of Mexico’s National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information and Protection of Personal Data (INAI), explained how protecting anonymity has encouraged people to use RTI.
According to the Mexican law, any person, be a citizen or not, can seek information through RTI and the person does not have to identify him or her self. Applications can be filed under psuedo names.
Answering to a question raised from the audience on whether the strongest RTI law in the world can root out corruption and malpractices, Diaz pointed out that mere transparency will not root out corruption. “It is a tool, a first step towards combating corruption. Put all information in a crystal box. So the people know what is being done. RTI is not a remedy but a first step,” said Diaz.
“Improving digital access in the Government sector can improve the proactive disclosure of information,” said Mr. Jayantha Fernando, Director / Legal Advisor to the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka. Speaking at the conference as a panelist in the RTI Privacy/Data protection session, Mr. Fernando explained that Sri Lanka is armed with some legal provisions protecting privacy but lacks a specific law covering data protection and privacy.
The existing E-Government Policy has got specific set of notes giving guidance to Government agencies how data should be collected from people or when citizen permission is required before releasing the data to a third party, Mr. Fernando explained. He further noted that, in the current context, it is required to analyse whether Sri Lanka is ready to have a cross sectoral data protection law,” he commented. Commissioner to the RTI Commission of Sri Lanka Ms. Kishali Pinto Jayawardana said she believes that the RTI is a weapon for the non-elites and the non-privileged, a comment that faced many criticism. “Ordinary citizens from the East and North – come with Tamil or Sinhala versions of the Act to challenge official’s refusal to disclose information. This is a major gain that the law has brought,” the commissioner said. “This is the power of RTI, when those socially marginalised are able to get justice by taking recourse to the law,” said Jayawardana.
Yet, she added, that the real strength is in the proactive disclosure, which is a challenge in the current context but an excellent way for Public Authorities to become more transparent and accountable. “During the last one year our Commission has had positive experiences. This may change sooner than later,” said Jayawardana.
Explaining the current context of the RTI law and its implementation, Chairman of the RTI Commission Mr. Mahinda Gammanpila explained that we are living in a culture where the response is always negative when it comes to disclosure of information.
“We have experienced reluctance by officials to divulge the information. When we explain the provisions of the Act and what they are expected to do, they do not resist it but understand,” said Mr. Gammanpila stressing that there is a need to change this attitudinal problem in the minds of public officials in general.
“They are willing to disclose provided there is an order from the Commission,” added Mr. Gammanpila.
Pointing out the challenges RTI Act is facing, Mr. Gammanpila added that proactive disclosure of information is an area where Sri Lanka is lagging behind, despite the law states that public authorities should take necessary steps to proactively disclose the information thus reducing the number of applications or appeals. “We are consulting with public authorities in this. This will take some more time but we are continuing with our efforts to establish this,” he added.
Generally, new patterns of thinking and a new mind set are essential when dealing with challenges. Thus, the RTI requires a change that necessitates public authorities to move out of their comfort zones of secrecy to spot light of transparency.
When Laws like the RTI that would challenge the power and the powerful and promotes transparency and accountability of a state and its actions, naturally comes resistance and attempts to dilute the effect. Therefore it is the duty of the civil society, media and the general public to form the forward defense line and protectors of RTI and its future.