Daily Mirror: Sri Lanka: Friday, February 24, 2017.
Sri Lanka’s achievement in having the world’s 3rd best RTI Act is without doubt mainly a result of having good Rules on Fees and Appeals, as proposed by the new Right to Information (RTI) Commission.
Also of help was the Commission’s Regulations on proactive disclosure of Public Authorities, laying down criteria for the appointment of information officers and providing free reuse of all information obtained under the RTI Act passed last year.
The fact that the Commission was able to successfully intervene with the Government to ensure that these standards were gazetted by February 3 is no mean achievement as we must surely recognize. The Commission itself was fully functional only in late December last year, with all its five members being appointed. It would have been a major task to bring out these standards in time.
In the meantime, the Commission was hit with a double whammy as it is commonly called, when it was reported that the Government’s National Budget for this year did not have a separate allocation for the body. Instead, funds were being passed through the Presidential Secretariat. In a statement released last week as referred to in the Daily Mirror editorial of February 17, despite these constraints, the Commission has re-affirmed its determination to function independently under the RTI Act. Given the calibre of the Commissioners, who serve on the body, we believe and hope that this promise will be strictly adhered to.
In that context, it is also necessary for the RTI Commission to be given reasonable breathing space to work out its institutional arrangements. As the scarcely two-months old Commission stated, it was currently working in an interim capacity with skeletal staff. Reportedly the Commissioners themselves have been working up to now without adequate financial compensation.
These thoughts come to mind when seeing the recent open letter issued by Decent Lanka to the Chairman of the RTI Commission. The host of details asked for include the decided cadre for the office of the Commission provided for under Section 13 of the Act, minimum educational requirements for all positions in the Commission, including that of the Director General, the procedure to be adopted in recruiting staff including the Director General and the time schedule for these.
Questions may also arise as to whether this barely two-month old Commission should be besieged with such detailed queries so early on in its functioning. No doubt this request may have been made with the best of intentions. But often the best of intentions may not be so good for the highest principles of RTI.
The RTI law and the RTI Commission came into being after the Sri Lanka media in particular, engaged in a long and protracted struggle. The media need to have a strong interest in making sure that this succeeds. Together, the Law and the Commission comprise a strong regime that could work for the betterment of Sri Lankan citizens. In Government and outside, some elements would probably wish for RTI to fail, given its potential to bring misdeeds out into the open. Therefore a negative outcome that they will be happy about must not be hastened by unwarranted pressure that makes it difficult for the RTI Commission to function. Its members who have been recognized for their commitment to the public interest may indeed throw up their hands and quit.
A commentator to this newspaper said recently that the RTI law was a law against its creators. But the difference is that the creators of this law were not the politicians. Rather it was the people and the Government had no option but to give into their demands.
We must hope that this promising start in bringing a good RTI Law into force will be strengthened by effective implementation. As the RTI Commission itself observed, the people’s support and cooperation is essential for this. No doubt, all well intentioned Sri Lankans would agree with that request.