Right to Information – in a nutshell

On the 4th August 2016, Sri Lanka became the 108th country in the world to pass the Right to Information Bill (RTI). Sri Lanka is the second to last country in South Asia to implement this Act, the last being Bhutan.

What is the Right to Information Act?

The Right to Information Act 2016 (RTI) enables any citizen of Sri Lanka to request any type of information recorded by any Public Authority. For instance, if you wished to know the exact funds assigned for highway constructions, past or current, you could submit an RTI application to the Road Development Authority. If you wished to know what preventative actions are taken for natural disasters such as flooding or landslides, you could file an RTI application to the Ministry of Disaster Management, or to the relevant Municipal Council.

How does it work?

An RTI application is a request for information filed at the relevant Public Authority. It can be sent in handwriting, electronically, or verbally communicated to an Information Officer if the applicant is unable to write it. There is a nominal fee to be paid upon submission. When requesting information, the applicant does not have to justify his/her request for information nor does it have to be personally related to the applicant. There is also no limit on the number or nature of questions asked.

There are, however, some limitations on what kind of information is accessible. For example, if the information requested compromises judicial independence, the request may be denied. There are also restrictions on information that may undermine national security or national relations with other countries.

By the 5th of November, every Public Authority was  to appoint an Information Officer and Designated Officer. The Information Officer is the first person with whom an application is filed. If denied by him/her, then the applicant can appeal to the Designated Officer. If again denied, then there is a chain of increasing authority that can be appealed to outside of that Public Authority, namely (in order): the Commission for Right to Information, the Court of Appeal, and finally, the Supreme Court.

RTI Watch, the watchdog for implementation of RTI, insists that it is important for citizens to ask whatever they desire. It is up to the relevant authority to deny the request – not citizens themselves to deny their own right to information.

When can we begin exercising this Right?

Now. The Right to Information Act was signed on the 4th of August 2016 and is technically effective from that date. However, there is a roll-out process between February and August 2017 during which Public Authorities will be gradually gazetted by the Minister for Mass Media and begin fulfilling requests. So you can start thinking about and filing requests for information but it will be 2017 when the relevant authority will begin to process them.

What does this mean for Sri Lanka?

Transparency International’s legal officer, Sankhitha Guneratne, explains the real significance of the RTI Act for Sri Lankans. “It’s mainly about opening up government to the people so people are able to hold the government accountable. Usually people are limited to participating in democracy at election time. This way, they obtain a right to participate in government between elections. They can champion different causes actively instead of merely criticizing the government.”

The Act was written and passed to counteract the culture of opacity in governmental process. To quote its preamble, the Act aims to ‘to foster a culture of transparency and accountability’ and to ‘thereby promote a society in which the people of Sri Lanka would be able to more fully participate in public life’. It is thus a duty, not a luxury, for citizens to exercise their right to information.