Just over three years ago, a seismic shift took place in the island nation of Sri Lanka, when a new Right to Information (RTI) law was operationalised. The law was not passed in response to popular, grassroots demand, and as such, one did not expect it to take root as it eventually did. Whether it was for a road to be reconstructed or for an entire village to obtain compensation for damage caused by the civil war, RTI users’ and their communities’ lives would be very different today, had the law not been in effect. Transparency International Sri Lanka alone has facilitated over 2000 RTIs in the past three years, of which over 45% of users are women.
Ranking 4th in the world, the law itself has several outstanding features – it prevails over all other laws, it prioritises the public interest, refusal of information must be justified, proactive disclosure of information is provided for, and most importantly, the law could be used by ordinary citizens through a simple procedure.
Watchdog for citizens’ rights, a deterrent against corruption
Consider the story of Mr. Gunaratnam from Kannagigramam in the North of Sri Lanka who filed an RTI request regarding a land tax that was consistently being overcharged. Upon receiving no response on both his request and appeal to the relevant public authority, he appealed to the Right to Information Commission. The Commission ordered the information to be disclosed and the entire community benefited from a reduction in the land tax.
Acting as watchdog over all this entire process is this Right to Information Commission – a body constituted of 5 commissioners appointed through a multi-stakeholder, independent process, empowered to hear appeals on refusals of information or lack of response, to order public authorities to disclose information, and even to conduct inquiries and prosecute officials that attempt to thwart the process of information disclosure by altering, concealing or destroying information, or that deliberately disobey the Commission’s orders.
The fact that the Commission exists acts as a check on all public authorities. It means that they are conscious that any unwarranted action could be appealed against. The commission has, in its orders spanning 2017-2019 ordered public authorities to disclose information to citizens, in 84% of cases. This is a robust record. It is almost impossible to imagine the RTI regime in Sri Lanka functioning effectively, if the RTI Commission were not to be in place as it now is.
An essential institution threatened by a constitutional amendment
In the past few weeks, the Government of Sri Lanka has proposed an amendment to the existing Constitution that seeks to overhaul several key provisions, including Articles regarding the appointment of independent commissions. However, the proposed amendment fails to address the issue of appointment of members to the RTI Commission. While it replaces the previous appointing authority – the Constitutional Council – with a less independent Parliamentary Council, it does not count the RTI Commission among the commissions to be thus appointed. In any event, including the RTI Commission in this list would still be an inadequate solution, given the more political, less authoritative nature of the proposed Parliamentary Council. If the proposed Constitutional amendment goes through without revision, the RTI Commission risks not being appointed at all, when the current Commissioners’ term runs out in 2021.
Having the RTI Commission as an appeal body before having to go to court is crucial for RTI operationalisation for another key reason. If citizens were not able to go before the Commission, they would have to seek recourse in Court, starting off a lengthy and expensive process that most citizens would not have the luxury to engage in. The grassroots nature of RTI use in Sri Lanka is only a reality today because the RTI Commission functions in the manner it does.
RTI has brought a fresh breath of air to the accountability landscape in Sri Lanka’s governance. Losing the RTI Commission can have a chilling effect on its use and effectiveness and those who suffer as a consequence would be citizens who have just begun in the last three years to truly exercise their democratic right to know, going beyond the ballot box. On this third International Right to Know Day since Sri Lanka’s RTI Act became operational, Sri Lanka’s RTI stands at a crossroads. Where do we go from here?
 Natesan, Ashwini., ‘Analyzing the Linkages Between the Use of Right to Information and Decreased Corruption/ Increased Transparency in Sri Lanka’ (upcoming publication).