In a recent article, we confirmed that RTI is applicable to any non-governmental organization that uses government funding, whether from the government of Sri Lanka or a foreign government. Considering the vast number of such organizations, we inquired about the impact this holds for researchers, as their work would be subject to RTI.
Professor S.P.F. Senaratne, a veteran consultant anthropologist, discussed the implications of RTI on research carried out by such institutions. He expressed concern about the ability to access such information.
‘I once undertook a project for a certain government body: an investigation into the operations of one of their institutes. In a project like that the final report is a public document. So at no point would I need to prevent anyone from public access to that report. The issue arises when whatever is said in the report is something that the organization itself will not want to reveal, especially where the findings are in some way inimical to the interests of the organization.’
Prof. Senaratne then exemplified such a situation he encountered while doing a consultation for an NGO in India. ‘I had to say that [the NGO’s] project was ill-conceived and its results were quite short of their target. About forty copies of the report were printed but about five were distributed.’ Under RTI regulations the document would also be accessible to the general public if so requested. Previously, such reports would only be circulated amongst intended stakeholders.
However, the anthropologist was more so concerned about people accessing raw, uninterpreted data. ‘Suppose I go on with the study and a certain amount of data is collected and I have not yet interpreted it but the information is available in its raw form. As a researcher I would resist [people having access to this under RTI]. My raw data, uninterpreted by me, put into the hands of somebody else who does not the background in which this data was collected, the hypotheses which underlay that collection – well, that data in somebody else’s hands could be misinterpreted.’ He illustrated further by relating a case where an external organization requested for the anthropologist’s raw data during a study. ‘They knew that we had materials which was useful to them. They wanted our data – not our report. There, I had to say no, you are not getting the data.’
RTI regulations enable any citizen to access recorded information held by organizations that fall under the category ‘public authority’, which includes NGOs that are funded by foreign or Sri Lankan governments.