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POSTED AT 10:05 PM 22-02-2017

The RTI Act: what part should we play?

A discussion on the effective use and consequences of the Right to Information Act

Image Courtesy: Sri Lanka Mirror

Concurrently with its 50th anniversary, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) organized a dialogue titled ‘Making the Right to Information a Reality in Sri Lanka: The Role of Non-State Actors’ to discuss the effect of the RTI Act in Sri Lanka. It was held from 4.00 to 6.00 pm on 22nd February at the Committee Room C (Lavender), BMICH.

 

“Right to Information, Right to Live”

Image Courtesy: The Times of India 

The keynote address was delivered by Venkatesh Nayak, the Co-Convener of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, India. The foundation of his speech was the slogan “Right to Information, Right to Live.” He believes that the constitution cannot protect the citizens of a country if they do not have access to information. He stressed on the need to educate the masses. He also discussed cases from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and England where the RTI Act was used effectively.

 

Handbooks for the RTI Act

Image Courtesy: Sri Lanka News Live

Next to speak was Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, the Director General of the Government Information Department. He stated that there was very little evidence in the Act to motivate the public to access data. He brought to notice that the Government had conducted many seminars and mass media conferences to educate the public about the RTI Act. The rules and regulations for the implementation of the Act include-

1.    Help desks at public offices.

2.    Resource centres for RTI.

3.    RTI handbooks.

It is important to be ready to supply the information demanded by the public, he added.

 

“RTI will deny my privilege”

Image Courtesy: Vimeo

Dilrukshi Handunnetti, an Attorney at Law and senior journalist began by quoting a colleague who claimed that “RTI will deny my privilege.” She quipped that since everyone can access information now, a journalist is useless! Nevertheless, the change in the media landscape brought about by the Act is a boon for investigational journalism. She believes that the change is both enabling and equalizing since everybody has the power to ask. She observes the Act to be a message multiplier, as more journalists publish the same news as the accessibility is higher.

The journalists work for community reasons as opposed to personal reasons, she noted. The incident where 15 women from Batticaloa demanded information of their loved ones lost in the war is a good example of how the RTI Act empowers those in need, she explained. One of the leading queries was to find out what had happened to their original complaints.

 

“We have to get it right from the very beginning”

Image Courtesy: Trans4m

Dr Vinya Ariyaratne, the General Secretary of the Sarvodaya Shramadhana Movement, said “we have to get it right from the very beginning,” and the Civil Societies should lead by example and exhibit transparency as well. In response to the panel host Chamindri’s question, if it was possible for the Civil Societies to unite and convey information to the people, he said that it was impractical to make one big front, and the focus should be on addressing community issues. Since the country is transitioning from war to peace, people need information on judicial and constitutional reforms.

 

Combating Sri Lanka’s culture of secrecy

Geoffrey Alagaratnam, the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, talked of the attitude change necessary to transform the culture of secrecy in Sri Lanka to a culture of transparency. To paraphrase his words – “Democracy is based on transparency. Democracy is the people. If the Government is not transparent, it is the people that suffer.”

The legal fraternity bridge the gap between the state and the community. Legal aid clinics, overlooked by a panel of lawyers, are conducted to educate people with low incomes on how to make use of the RTI Act. He also pointed out that lawyers could help smoothen out the rough edges of the act and replace its ambiguity with clarity.

 

“The RTI Act supersedes everything”

Image Courtesy: Newsfirst

The Question and answer session followed. Regarding pre-existing laws that contradicted the RTI Act, Alagaratnam said that “the RTI Act supersedes everything.” Chamindri invited Louis, the head of the study conducted by the UNDP on this matter, to report on his progress. He announced that 120 laws were found to be contradicting the RTI law. Around 105 laws have been settled. They have been divided into three categories –

1.    Ones which are confusing and can be interpreted as contradictory to the RTI Act.

2.    Ones which are ambiguous and may contradict the RTI Act.

3.    Ones which clearly violate the RTI Act.

 

The Golden Padlock and the Tight Key

Giving a welcome break to the otherwise serious discussion, Handunnetti shared with the audience this hilarious custom in Bulgaria. Their Government awards the institution with the least transparency the ‘Golden Padlock’ and the funniest request for information the ‘Tight Key’.

 

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”

Nayak said the above when asked if the increasing pressure on the Government to divulge information will lead to it tightening the RTI laws. He exclaimed that the “the doors of transparency must be kept wide open” and if the public and the Media should keep on pressing for this right. Statistically, at any given moment, 500 people in India are filling out a RTI application form.