Sunday Times: Sri Lanka: Sunday, January 29, 2017.
The Ministry of Mass Media responsible for the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act this week gazetted the law to become operational across all public authorities from next Friday (February 3), but for citizens to be able to practically use it, the ministry must also gazette the rules on fees and appeals drafted by the RTI Commissioners.
Under the Act, provisions for establishing the RTI Commission and appointing Information Officers come into effect at the same time as the Act is signed into law by the Speaker (in this case, August 4, 2016). However, the date from which a citizen can file an information request has to be gazetted by the Ministry of Mass Media.
Last week, February 3, 2017, was gazetted as this date. But for this to be effective, the rules on fees and appeals, as well as the regulations, must also be gazetted by the ministry. The former are drafted by the Commission, while the latter are drawn up by the ministry in consultation with the Commission. Both have now been passed on to the Ministry, the Sunday Times understands.
Meanwhile, the Government this week submitted a supplementary estimate to Parliament seeking the approval of the House to provide an additional sum of Rs 1.8 billion to cover the expenses of the President. Of this, Rs 3 million is to meet the recurrent expenditure of the newly-established RTI Commission. Unlike for other independent Commissions, the 2017 Budget did not contain a separate line item for the RTI Commission.
Public authorities across which RTI will become operational, include Government ministries; a body or office created by the Constitution (including the offices of the President and Prime Minister) or any written law or statute of a provincial council; a local authority; a Government department; a public corporation; any department, authority or institution established or created by a provincial council; and all courts, tribunals and institutions that administer justice.
The Act covers all companies in which the State or a public corporation holds 25% or otherwise, has a controlling interest. It also applies to organisations carrying out a statutory or public function or service, under contract, partnership, agreement or licence from the Government or its agencies or from a local body, but only to the extent of activities covered by that statutory or public function or service.
It extends to non-governmental organisations that are substantially funded by the Government or any department or other authority established or created by a provincial council or by a foreign Government or international organisation, rendering a service to the public, insofar as the information sought relates to the service rendered to the public.
Its reach includes higher educational institutions including private universities and professional institutions and private educational institutions including institutions offering vocational or technical education which are established, recognised or licensed under any written law or funded, wholly or partly, by the State or a public corporation or any statutory body established or created by a statute of a provincial council;
Though there are several exemptions relating to, among other things, national security based on which information may be refused, the Act states that information even in that respect “shall not be refused where the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the harm that would result from its disclosure”.
This definition by the RTI Act of public authorities across a wide range of entities is one of the reasons it has been ranked internationally as the 9th best RTI law in the world. Unlike in India, no agencies are privileged or shut out from its application.
The independent RTI Commission is tasked with monitoring compliance of all public authorities within the Act. It is also an appellate body to which complaints could be filed, with the final appeal being to the Courts.
The Commission is chaired by retired public servant Mahinda Gammanpila. Two members–Attorney Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena (nominee of the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, the Newspaper Society and the Sri Lanka Press Institute with its affiliates) and Attorney S.G. Punchihewa (civil society nominee) were made by President Maithripala Sirisena on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council with effect from October 1, 2016.
However, due to initial nominations of the two remaining members of the five-member body, posing problems (the nominees of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and civil society could not be appointed as Commissioners in terms of the Act), fresh nominations had to be called for. The RTI Commission became operational, therefore, only in the last week of December 2016, with the appointments of retired President of the Court of Appeal A.W.A. Salam and social scientist Selvy Thiruchandran.