Sri Lankan Provincial Council Urges Strengthening FOI Bill

30 March 2016

The Northern Provincial Council has recommended specific ways to beef up the Sri Lankan government’s proposed right to information bill.

The draft bill was tabled March 23. (See previous report.)

The Northern Provincial Council wants RTI to cover held by private authorities if such information is necessary in the public interest, according to a description of 19 proposed amendments contained in an article in the Sunday Times. The newspaper editorialized for the bill.

The council also said the proposed Right to Information Commission should be given the power to impose any sanctions on anybody for noncompliance. “This needs to be attended to as otherwise the Commission will not be able to enact its writ and further the democratic cause for transparency.”

W A Wijewardene, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, wrote an opinion column in Sri Lanka’s Daily FT newspaper to oppose excluding Sri Lanka’s Central Bank from the bill’s ambit. He said such an exemption “denied the citizens the access to a wide range of economic information affecting their lives.”

Excluded is “information over (i) Exchange rates or the control of overseas exchange transactions;  (ii) The regulation of banking or credit;  (iii) Taxation; (iv) The stability, control and adjustment of prices of goods and services, rents and other costs and rates of wages, salaries and other income; or  (v)  The entering into of overseas trade agreements have been exempted,” according to an article in EconomyNext.

An article in the Nation describes the bill and addresses a question about Section 5 of the bill under which the right of access to information may be denied – in particular Section 5 (1) (c) (v), which reads as “the disclosure of such information would cause serious prejudice to the economy of Sri Lanka by disclosing prematurely decisions to change or continue government economic or financial policies relating to the entering into of overseas trade agreements.”

MP Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne was asked if this “would impact the public obtaining information about the proposed controversial Indo-Sri Lanka Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA), the Wickremaratne said that Section 5 (4) which reads, “Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (1), a request for information shall not be refused where the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the harm that would result from its disclosure.”

If denied, a citizen can appeal against the rejection of a request, first with a designated officer appointed to the said public authority which refused information, then through the Right to Information Commission and finally challenge it in the Supreme Court, he added.

A blog post by Sanjana Hattotuwa began by complaining:

On the day after the the Right to Information bill was presented in Parliament, a leading daily newspaper devoted eight times more coverage to a soft drink ad on its front page than covering this historic development. A ‘grand sale’ of a leading home department store took up ten times more space. The birthday celebrations of the PM covered six times more space. The story of a Minister’s 500,000 rupee worth gem that was lost and found took up three times more space. The comparisons continue to be mind-boggling. The news story on RTI featured just three lines. In contrast, the front page lead of a Minister’s lost gem stone was twice as long.

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