Cabinet approval has been granted to the draft Right to Information Act to be presented to Parliament as an urgent bill. The most significant point of the bill is that all citizens will have the right to know information. The right to information means to obtain information that exist in state institutions, and information that exist under its control or its custody. A commission in this regard will be established in order to facilitate the right to information. The commission will mediate to determine on the information that needs to be kept secret.
The Right to Information (RTI) Bill sets out procedures for obtaining information and specifies grounds on which access may be denied. It provides for the establishment of a Right to Information Commission.
Public authorities defined in the bill include ministries, departments, corporations, companies in which the State has a specified shareholding, local authorities; departments, authorities or institutions established or created by a provincial council; non-governmental organizations; superior and subordinate courts of record; and a range of educational institutions.
The original proposal to include recognized political parties or independent groups has been struck out in the approved bill. Another that has been deleted is a proviso that states “…any information that cannot be denied to a Member of Parliament cannot be denied to the public”.
Under the law, an information or designated officer of a public authority may even allow access to information exempted under the law, when he is of the opinion that “the public interest in release of such information demonstrably outweighs the harm to the interest protected by such exemption”.
The law excludes personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause invasion of the privacy of the individual “unless the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information and the person concerned has consented in writing to such disclosure”.
There are several other exclusions, including information that causes serious prejudice to Sri Lanka’s economy. There is a bar on releasing information that could lead to “grave prejudice to the prevention or detection of any crime or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders”.
There are exclusions with regards to trade secrets or information that harms the commercial interests of any person; medical records; information required to be kept confidential by reason of the existence of a fiduciary relationship; and information that enables the existence or identity of a confidential source of information in relation to law enforcement or national security, to be ascertained.
The RTI bill makes it the duty of every public authority to maintain and preserve their records—old records for a period not less than 10 years from the date of commencement of the Act; and new records, for a period of not less than 12 years. It requires the President and Ministers to publish reports to be available for public inspection.
It binds public authorities to submit reports on such areas such as the number of requests for information received; the number of requests for information which were granted or refused in full or in part; the reasons for refusal, etc.
It is the duty President and ministers to inform the public three months ahead about the commencement of projects. They shall also, on written request by a member of the public, make available updated information about the project throughout the period of its development and implementation.
The RTI Commission comprises three persons from the Sri Lanka Press Institute, the Organisation of Professional Associations and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. Two others shall be appointed in consultation with civil society.
Among the Commission’s duties would be to monitor the performance and ensure due compliance by public authorities of the duties cast on them under the act. It has powers to hold inquiries; to direct a public authority to provide information in a particular form; to hear and determine any appeals; and to impose specified sanctions and penalties, among other things.
The Commission is to have its own fund which will receive money voted by Parliament for use by the Commission; money that may be received by the Commission by way of penalties imposed under the Act; and donations, gifts or grants from “any source whatsoever, whether in or outside Sri Lanka”.
Worryingly, though the bill makes it possible for the President to remove from office any member of the RTI Commission who “does any act which is likely to bring the commission to disrepute”.
The bill lays down detailed procedures by which citizens can engage with information officers appointed to every public authority. An information officer is given a maximum of 14 days to comply with a request, to be extended up to 21 day on specified grounds. There is a clearly defined appeal process.