14 working days since RTI launch: current and future challenges

Information Officers must affirm or deny RTI requests within 14 days of making the application. Transparency International Sri Lanka made a request for a declaration of the President’s Assets on February 3rd, the day RTI was launched. They should have received notice by yesterday about whether their request would be fulfilled or denied. Instead, TISL had to contact the President’s Office to find out what the status was, said TISL Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere. Obeyesekere stated this as a member of the audience at a panel discussion on RTI held by Verité Research and Democracy Reporting International.

RTI has now been in action for almost a month and a variety of requests have been made. ‘Someone in Kalutara had even requested reasons for why their bank loan was denied by the Bank of Ceylon,’ said panelist Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Government Information Department. Despite the strong demand from the public, the panelists and participants saw many challenges regarding successful implementation of the Act.

“How does one ascertain the quality of information being provided?” asked one participant. Citizens can challenge the information received in courts or with the RTI Commission if they doubt its quality or if they believe information has been unnecessarily withheld, responded the panelists.

‘How we can ensure RTI functionality in a different regime?’ asked one panelist, Dr. Mario Gomez, Executive Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. Dr. Gomez asked this while acknowledging the generally positive atmosphere of the incumbent government towards RTI. Mr. Kalansooriya responded, emphasizing that it is up to citizens to keep pushing with RTI requests to make sure they exercise this new constitutional right.

Mr. Kalansooriya also discussed the difficulty of implementing RTI with three major sites where ordinary citizens are most likely to exercise their right: police, schools, and health services. Since these represent large, dispersed networks, the government needs to systematize how RTI requests will be processed and how information can be centrally held and managed. Currently with the police, any police station must accept RTI requests, which are then redirected to the District Secretariat for fulfillment as this is where information is centrally held.

Will Ferroggiaro, consultant at Democracy Reporting International shared his experiences as a user of equivalent of RTI in the U.S.A., called the Freedom of Information. He displayed examples of information received under Freedom of Information to demonstrate the power it can have. One document was a hand-written note from Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under the Bush Administration, on the morning of the 9/11 attack detailing strategic reactions to the attack. One section of the note had been redacted as it pertained to international agreements. Ferroggiaro stated that this information was obtained by a mere blog and emphasized just how powerful RTI can potentially be.