Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) as a longstanding advocate for the Right to Information (RTI) is encouraged by the enactment of the RTI Act on 7th July 2016 after a movement spanning two decades. The RTI Act empowers citizens to obtain information in the possession of public authorities, without having to provide reasons, thereby acknowledging the fundamental premise that the state holds information in trust for their citizens. TISL Executive Director, Asoka Obeyesekere, remains cautious when stating that “enactment is just a first step, the real challenge will be in rolling out and administering the RTI infrastructure across the state”.
TISL acknowledges that there is room for improvement, as detailed in the TISL RTI legislative brief shared with all 225 MPs, which highlighted seven key recommendations for strengthening the Act. These improvements ranged from bolstering whistleblower provisions to questioning the explicit exclusion of the Attorney General’s Department from the scope of the Act. Three of the seven improvements were accepted and will be incorporated into the final text. Despite the remaining drawbacks, TISL supported the passage of the RTI Act, as it has the potential to provide an excellent framework for the active engagement of citizens in exercising their right to access information. What remains to be seen is the political will to set in motion the measures necessary for the effective implementation of the RTI Act.
The setting up of the RTI Commission, the appointment of information officers and designated officers to provide information to citizens as well as public awareness-raising with regard to the use of the RTI mechanism are all vital components for ensuring the full enjoyment of the fundamental right to information, as provided under the 19th amendment. Whilst these responsibilities lie primarily with government, it is essential that civil society actively participate in engaging citizens and assisting them in exercising their right to information.
TISL runs three Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) in Colombo, Matara and Vavuniya, which provide legal advice to citizens who face challenges in accessing the state apparatus for their basic needs. TISL will equip these centres to function as hubs for making requests under the RTI Act, as soon as the relevant provisions become operational in early 2017.
As a leading advocate for strong RTI legislation, TISL and its members have been involved in the shaping of this law, as well as in creating public engagement through debate surrounding the contents of the RTI Bill. Concurrent to this TISL has also maintained its independence and has been objective and critical throughout the legislative process and shall continue to act as a contributor and constructive critic in the coming years – pre and post implementation.
TISL is cautiously optimistic and views the passage of the RTI Act as an important step in securing open governance and participatory democracy in Sri Lanka. Much still remains to be seen however in terms of political will during implementation, bureaucracies approach to reforming information sharing processes and ultimately of citizens’ willingness to proactively seek answers from the state.