RTI Commission 'committed' to its strength and independence

Issuing a Media Statement, Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Commission has stated that it is greatly encouraged by the support and interest evidenced by the public in regard to the effective working of the Right to Information (RTI) Act No 12 of 2016.

It has further stated that the five-member body, though still operating in an interim capacity with a skeletal staff from temporary premises (2- 203-204, BMICH, Colombo -07, Ph- 011 2691625) is committed to building a strong and independent operation with the expertise and capacity to support all seekers and providers of public information. The Commission, which came into existence in late December 2016, consists of Mahinda Gammanpila (Chair), AWA Salam, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, Selvy Thiruchandran and SG Punchihewa.

The Commission’s Rules on Fees and Appeals, together with three Regulations proposed by the Commission to the Ministry of Mass Media on Proactive Disclosure of Public Authorities (PAs), Appointment Criteria for Information Officers and an Open Re-Use Policy of all Information obtained under the RTI Act put Sri Lanka’s RTI Regime into the third best place in the world and the first in South Asia.

The RTI Commission has also pointed out in its Media Statement that a Public Notice published by the Commission in all three national languages on 29th of January and 2nd of February, 2017 emphasizes that the Commission intends have proactive public engagement. It states that participation and feedback by citizens is vital to bringing about a culture of accountability and openness in Sri Lanka which is the primary objective of the RTI Act.

The Media Statement points to the fact that the RTI Act was enacted to bring about a major democratising transformation of relations between Sri Lankan citizens and the government.  It imposes important new obligations of openness on PAs which cover constitutional and statutory entities, government departments and bodies, corporate bodies in which the government has a controlling interest, local and provincial authorities as well as courts, tribunals and institutions established to administer justice.

This also includes private entities working under contract, agreement, licence or a partnership with the government(where their statutory or public service or function is concerned), higher educational, private vocational or technical education institutions established, recognised or licenced under any written law or funded wholly or partly by the State and non–governmental organizations rendering a service to the public.

Citizens are now able to exercise a right to access information held by these Public Authorities, subject only for few exceptions, all of which are subject to the public interest override. New norms have now been established through the Regulation proposed by the Commission for PAs to proactively share information.
The Commission’s Rules gazetted on February 3rd puts a pro-public Fee Schedule into place and provides for informal hearings of appeals aimed at least possible burdens to be put on information seekers. The Rules also state that if an appeal is successful to the Designated Officer in a Public Authority or the Commission, fees for that information will not be charged. This is the first time that an Information Commission in South Asia has proposed this.

The RTI Commission monitors, adjudicates and supervises the working of the RTI Act. It has powers to summon information officers, look at information that is shut out from public scrutiny and prosecute directly in court. However, the Commission does not have a separate allocation in the Budget.

This led many editorialists and article writers to question as to why the Ministry was being provided by the Government with 25 million while the RTI Commission was given just 3 million in ad hoc allocations through the Office of the President. Despite the Ministry being given this sum, many Public Authorities do not have information officers and some have been hostile to people going to lodge information requests after February 3rd. Some however have been courteous though ignorant about the Act and had to be educated by the citizens seeking information!  

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