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POSTED AT 11:45 AM 21-02-2017

Sri Lanka’s 'culture of secrecy'- the greatest challenge to the RTI’s success

FrontPage speaks to RTI Commissioner S G Punchihewa on the practical difficulties Sri Lanka’s shining new law could face

Can the Right to Information Act uncover decades of well kept secrets? Image courtesy- Al Jazeera

“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”

The Preamble to the Right to Information (RTI) Act certified on August 2016 brings into sharp focus the culture of secrecy freely practiced in Sri Lanka, to which an Act of this nature has recently been introduced. With the Act now in effect, FrontPage sat down with RTI Commission member, Attorney-at-Law; S.G. Punchihewa to shed light on its most recent developments as well as the issues anticipated with its implementation.


Alleged corruption is but one issue that the RTI is expected to shed light on. Image courtesy: FIRSTPOST



Why does Sri Lanka need a Right to Information Act?

Punchihewa: Sharing public information has not been a tradition practiced in the Sri Lankan public service, and the need to change this practice – further supported by the fact that we now have a Government that came to power on the promise of ‘Good Governance’ – was the predominant reason this Act was conceptualized.

Legislation such as the Official Secrets Act, the Archives Act, and certain Articles in the Establishments Code curbed the right of citizens to receive government information in the past years, but these laws were not the only reason Sri Lanka was so attuned to this culture of secrecy: the Emergency Laws in practice since the 1970s till 2009 was arguably the root cause of this issue. Although the degree of implementation of these laws varied throughout the years, its impact sank deep into the conducts of our public officers, who were well informed about the repercussions of sharing Government information.  The RTI Act means to deconstruct this culture incrementally.

The essence of this Act is to enforce the opinion that Government information belongs to the citizens of Sri Lanka. The theory is that since the Government functions in part due to the taxes paid for by the citizens, the decisions made on behalf of the country as well as the functions of each public institution have a right to be shared with the citizens themselves.


The efficiency with which the RTI operates could make or break the 'Yahapalana' legacy. Image Courtesy: The International Federation of Journalists  



But how is this opinion enforced?

Punchihewa: The RTI Act has made it the duty of every public officer to provide information requested by the public. The clause of “Proactive Disclosure” mandates all Government institutions to display information regarding a particular project or initiative taken by that institution (including budgetary allocations and tenders) so that any citizen may be informed about it if he or she wishes, without the need to request it from the Institution.
There is also the establishment of ‘Information Officers’: an officer selected in each Institution to liaise with the public and provide any information he or she requires. There is also the position of ‘Designated Officer’ who is generally one with executive powers, such as the Head of the Department or Institution. It is also regulated through this Act that all Government institutions must take steps to digitalise their material in order to provide digital copies of information to citizens upon their request.  



Is there any Information that cannot be shared?

Punchihewa: Information that cannot be shared is mentioned under a 14-point criterion in the RTI Act.
However, exceptions are embedded within these exceptions as well.  If it can be proved that withholding certain information would cause greater harm to the public, the clause to not share such information can be overridden. The Information Officer of that particular Institution can take the matter up with the Designated Officer, and can ultimately lead to seeking advice from the Commission in such occasions. This reinforces the fact that the RTI Act was drafted with a specific goal to support and empower the Citizen.


 Sri Lanka’s focus has long been on National Security not Transparency. Image courtesy Deutsche Welle



How can there be transparency if officers may choose what to share and what not to?

Punchihewa: If information cannot be shared, the Officer is bound by law to provide reasons as to its withholding. In fact, all public officers are bound by law to this Act, and must coordinate with the Information Officer in providing all necessary information to the public. Failure to do so could be taken up in Court as well. This clause has made officers uneasy, fearing that the penalties are harsh if they make a mistake. This is also owing to the fact that our officers are still under the assumption that providing information can lead to penalties while the Act aims to reverse that. Certain Articles in the Act itself state that if public officers’ execute their duties in the purest form in accordance with the Act, they will be protected by law.


Is the citizenship up for the challenge in realizing the RTI’s full potential? Image courtesy: The Colombo Telegraph



What are the practical issues in implementing a RTI Act given the conditions practiced in Sri Lanka?

Punchihewa: Reversing the habit of dismissing requests for Government information is a predominant issue, since officers are more inclined towards denial. Our officers must come to understand that under the RTI Act, the dismissal of such a request would be considered the crime, as opposed to what they have been led to believe all these years. Even the Commission is bound by the law of RTI. I predict under these conditions, that a smooth transition would therefore be difficult, and a truly successful implementation of this Act would take place incrementally.  

Another practical issue is the perceivable lack of necessary technology at Government Institutions in accordance with the Act. The technological equipment to digitalise all the material, as well as establishing websites for this purpose is something Government Institutions are not used to, and they will need time to implement this.



How about taking this information to the grassroots level, since this Act is meant to benefit the Public?

Punchihewa: Yes, that sort of awareness is also lacking at the moment. The Ministry of Mass Media has undertaken the task of informing and training media persons, but public awareness has not been dealt with at the moment. If the public isn’t made aware of the RTI Act, we might face a situation where officers are ready to provide information to a public that is not requesting it. Yet, taking into account our country’s literacy rate, we can be hopeful that the public can soon catch on to this development.


Image courtesy: Al Jazeera