The SundayLeader: Sri Lanka : Ashanthi Warunasuriya: Sunday, February 5, 2017.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act is taking shape in government ministries despite some challenges.
RTI came into force from last week and the public will now be able to access information from government institutions. The Right to Information Act was passed by the parliament on August 4. According to the Act, it has to be enacted within six months since the approval of Parliament. The government had taken measures to appoint information officers to 50 of the 51 Ministries. According to the Media Ministry, all District Secretaries have also been briefed on RTI. The training sessions for these officials have already been carried out.
“All state institutions are included in this Act. So far we have been able to appoint information officers at most government institutions. The Information Commission headed by Mahinda Gammanpila is already laying the ground work to regulate this process. For an example, they would be deciding on the issues such as the required fees for information services and the procedure that it involves,” Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka said. The Media Minister recalled that the government had succeeded in getting that Bill passed in Parliament and all Parliamentarians were briefed on the Act well in advance. According to the Minister, MPs of all political parties who are interested in the Right to Information had taken part in workshops, resulting in a unanimous approval of the RTI Bill in Parliament. Under the RTI Act, government officials are bound to provide the necessary information on government activities to the general public. Accordingly, the government has so far trained over 40,000 information officers in government institutions.
“It will take some time for the people to get used to this new system. But soon the public will understand what kind of benefit this Act is going to give the people,” Minister Karunathilaka said. The RIT Act expects to create a new culture within the bureaucratic core of the country. According to the government, this would play a major role in minimizing corruption as transparency is one of the key goals of this Act.
“In countries such as Bangladesh, it has taken over five years to implement these policies since enactment. But we have been able to implement it within six months. Ordinarily, a government brings in such transparency laws at the end of its tenure. But we have a genuine interest to implement it in the beginning of our administration to promote transparency and good governance. We have already taken steps to raise awareness among the public in this regard,” Karunathilaka said. Applications submitted requesting information under the Act would have to be answered within 14 days. The government says foreign agencies have also expressed their support to implement the RTI Act.
Institutions such as USAID have provided technical support for the implementation of the RTI Act. The RTI Act contains nine provisions limiting the publication of certain information. The restricted information includes information related to national security and other personal records such as medical reports.
Expressing his views on the RTI Act, Advisor on Information Requests, Piyathissa Ranasinghe said that as a result of the high level of literacy of the country and the high level of government influence on public life, requests for information would see an increase within a short period of time.
According to him information officers have already been selected from every government institution and briefings have concluded in five provinces. “There is no need of excessive briefings. The Act has laid down a simple procedure for acquiring information. This is not a system where the people have to submit applications and remain in lines to receive information. Information can even be acquired verbally or via e-mail. The information officer only has to record the reason for requesting the information and provide the information. So there is no formal conclusion of training sessions. The Media Ministry cannot carry out the training sessions for the entire state mechanism all the time,” Ranasinghe said. Meanwhile the government has also claimed that it would also increase the number of avenues and methods the people could use to obtain information from the government.
When queried as to whether the ordinary people would make use of this system, the advisor said that it would be up to the mass media to increase the demand of public requests for information.
“We are not going ask the people to ask for information. It is a responsibility of media institutions and civil society activists. The government is also considering the possibility of using a digital method to ease up the system. But it is not possible to implement it in all institutes at once. For example if anyone goes to the Land Registry to seek a permit we cannot give a digital copy since it is not yet possible for us to make it a digital drawing. So the digital process would be tested in a pilot project for several years. At present there are several institutions such as the RMV, the Registration of Persons Department and the Passport Office who use digital systems. But it would take some time to get all the institutions into such a level. But we are planning to implement it with the help of the World Bank and few other international organizations,” Ranasinghe said. When asked as to what steps the people could take in case an official refuses to provide information, Ranasinghe said if any official refuses to provide information then the first appeal should be made to the head of the department.
If the department head fails to solve the issue within 21 days then the matter could be referred to the Commission. If it is not solved within two months then legal action can be taken at a court. This could even lead up to the Supreme Court. There are five appellate officials to consider these issues.
Ranasinghe said that journalists have been given total freedom to seek information from government officials under this new system. He also said that even written records could be obtained in case of an alleged fraud. Meanwhile, additional Secretary of the Ministry of Mass Media B. K. S. Ravindra says that under the RTI Act, the general public has also been given the right to obtain information from all independent commissions including the State Services Commission. He said that all the steps have been taken to launch the Right to Information from February 3 onwards and that the relevant gazette notification containing the fee structure and the application forms would by be published on February 3. Pointing out that at least one official has been appointed in all state institutions to act as information officers, the additional secretary said that if in case an information official has not been appointed, the officers in charge of those institutions could act as information officers.