Sri Lanka Passes RTI Law; Campaign Began in 2004

27 June 2016

Sri Lanka’s Parliament on June 24 unanimously approved an amended right to information bill.

The Right to Information Act, No 12 of 2016, was finally certified by the Speaker on Aug. 4 (text).

Some changes, largely technical, were made to bill to accommodate the opinion of the Supreme Court. (See previous Freedominfo.org reports here and here.) One expansion will provide additional information on disappeared persons.

Efforts to pass RTI legislation date back to 2004. “The failure to access information led to several issues over the past 10 years,” said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, according to an article in the Colombo Gazette. President Maithripala Sirisen, who took office early last year, had pledged to pass a bill in his first 100 days, but the process took much longer.

An account of the bill’s main features produced by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative is below. Another description of law is contained in this article by Science writer and columnist Nalaka Gunawardene. Also see Daily Mail report.

Implementation Plans

Parliamentary Affairs and Mass Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilake said that an Information Commission will be established and 8,000 public servants will  be trained to implement the provisions of the RTI Act, according to remarks quoted in The Daily News. The act covers 4,000 institutions.

The minister said measures would be taken to implement the provisions of the Act within six months with the involvement of the Parliamentary Affairs and Mass Media Ministry.

Passage Welcomed

The multi-member Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) welcomes passage of the Right of Access to Information Bill. “The SLPI celebrates the passing of this long delayed Bill which secures an essential right for Sri Lankan citizens,” according to a statement crediting the Government of National Unity.

The Institute noted as a “reservation that the RTI Commission that is entrusted with the efficient implementation of this proposed law has not been provided with the required legal powers to enforce their decisions in a suitably expeditious manner.”

“The passing of the RTI Bill regardless, we face a most difficult task in challenging a long entrenched culture of official secrecy in the country,” the Institute said.

Human rights activist Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, who participated in the 2004 drafting and has been involved throughout the process, wrote, “This Friday as Sri Lanka’s Parliament unanimously approved the 2016 RTI Bill amidst the mumbling discontents of its gloomy detractors in the House, sceptics raised a rare and hearty cheer.”

Her Sunday Times column continued: “Born out of a tortuous process ranging back over two decades and frustrated by political hostility on several occasions, it was difficult to believe that this country had at last passed an information law which, though not perfect as such laws rarely are, eminently sufficed for the purpose.”

Looking ahead, she wrote:

Even now and exuberance over the passing of the Bill nonetheless, the real difficulties lie ahead. RTI must be evidenced through vigorous activism in Sri Lankan villages and far flung outposts of the country, not limited to ‘information seminars’ and ‘talk shops’ in Colombo like many other such exercises. It must not be allowed to languish like information laws in Nepal and the Maldives.

Main Features

The salient features of the RTI Bill tabled in Parliament in March 2016 are as follows:
1) Only citizens of Sri Lanka can seek and obtain information under the law. Bodies, both incorporated and unincorporated, where at least 3/4th of the members are Sri Lankan citizens, can also seek and receive information. Reasons need not be given for seeking information;
2) All organs of the State- Parliament, Executive and Judiciary are covered by the law. The police and defence forces, public sector corporations, local authorities, private entities carrying out a public function or providing a public service under an agreement or license from Government or local authorities are also covered;
3) There are specific provisions for proactive information disclosure including details of developmental projects of monetary values specified in the law;
4) The time limit for making a decision on a request is 21 days which may be extendable under certain circumstances;
5) Several clauses containing exemptions to disclosure contain harm tests. Even exempt information will have to be disclosed if public interest in so doing outweighs the harm to the protected interests;
6) Decisions of refusal to provide access to information are subject to a two-tier appeals system. The first tier of appeal is internal to the public authority;
7) A 5-member RTI Commission appointed by the President of Sri Lanka on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council will be the second tier of appeals. Decisions of the Commission may be challenged before the Court of Appeal. In any appeal proceeding, the burden of proving that one acted in accordance with the provisions of the law is on the public authority.
8) The RTI Commission is empowered to initiate prosecution of errant officials for committing offences under the law such as destroying information that was the subject matter of a request, not cooperating with the Commission in its proceedings or not complying with its decisions. For minor contraventions of the law such as refusing to receive information requests, rejecting a request without giving reasons, stipulating excessive fees the errant officer will attract disciplinary action;
9) The public authorities have a duty to report to the RTI Commission about the number of requests received and disposed including the manner of their disposal every year; and
10) There will be no civil or criminal liability on any officer for acting in good faith while performing any function or duty under the RTI law.

 

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