Theodore Fernando Warnakulasuriya “Our freedom depends in large part, on the continuation of a free press, which is the strongest guarantee of a free society.” -          Richard M. Schmidt. As Sri Lankans, we are in a threshold of entering into a new era of freedom and responsibility, empowered by the implementation of the Right of [...]


Will Right of Information Act makes a real difference to the people of Sri Lanka ? Are We Ready?


Theodore Fernando Warnakulasuriya

“Our freedom depends in large part, on the continuation of a free press, which is the strongest guarantee of a free society.”

-          Richard M. Schmidt.

As Sri Lankans, we are in a threshold of entering into a new era of freedom and responsibility, empowered by the implementation of the Right of Information Act  which was passed in 2016. We hear the good news  that,  the annual World Press Freedom Index for 2016 has ranked Sri Lanka 141st out of180 countries.  We read in the news that Transparency  International,  has given us a prime  example ,  of  usage  of the above actby  seeking information on the assets of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. We sincerely hope  that all these ‘silver linings’  will remain not just rhetoric but bring radical change in our thinking , in  all our administrative structures , empowering all citizens to participate actively in governance, and of accountability to the sovereign people of the country.

There is no doubt that media in Sri Lanka needsplay a bigger role, in dissemination of information which was kept under the carpet   by power hungry and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats under the pretext  of so called “ curtain of secrecy”. Scrutinization and the  implications of  Right of Information which was passed in 2016 Act is warranted in the back ground of culture of silence, apathy and indifference that was seen and felt  as one of the  hall marks in the Sri Lankan society, specially in the past.

Although, there was no right of information act, let us also not forget that some brave journalists in Sri Lanka, who ventured out, and who had to  risk  their lives,  who had to flee the country, and were brutally killed   for exposing the mega deals that was hidden from the public eyes,  under the guise of secrecy. Let us appreciate, and be proud  that there are few journalists and there are some media outlets in Sri Lanka,  who are  bold enough to investigate, and bring to our attention mal-practices committed by those who rule.

The idea of the press as Fourth Estate, as an institution that exists primarily as a check and balance on those in public office, was based on the premise that powerful states had to be prevented from overstepping their bounds. The press working independently of government, even as its freedoms were guaranteed by the state, was supposed to help ensure that this was so.

In new and old democracies, the idea of the media as the public’s eyes and ears, and not merely a passive recorder of events, is widely accepted by all and  have gained currency today. Indeed, the myth of the intrepid journalist  going on a beat, doggedly pursuing the trail of wrongdoing remains very much alive, both in the media, as well as in cinema.  Governments, it is argued, cannot be held accountable if citizens are ill informed about the actions of officials and institutions. Hence we can say that watchdog reporting, or investigative journalism covers a wide range of different types of journalism. On a routine basis, the watchdog press monitors the day‐to‐day workings of government, thereby helping citizens to assess the efficacy of its performance. Reporting that goes beyond what officials or their spokespersons say, to examine government performance, is also a form of watchdogging.

Watchdog or investigative  reporting covers an array of malfeasance: from sex and personal scandals to financial wrongdoing, political corruption, enrichment in public office, and other types of wrongdoing. They can also be classified according to who initiates the exposé: sometimes these are the results of leaks from interested parties such as government investigators, rival businesses or politicians, or opposition political parties; others are triggered by whistleblowers inside an organization. Some are investigated first by advocacy groups and campaigners, before being taken up by mainstream news organizations. The well known investigation namely the Watergate investigation made possible, resignation of US President Richard Nixon, is an example of an initiative and enterprise of journalists as well as the cooperation of government investigators, namely the Drudge Report.

Therefore, one can say  that  accurate information is power, and can be considered whole-heartedly  as the oxygen of democracy. It invigorates and strengthens democratic way of life. If people  are not aware of what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, then people cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of the society..

There is no doubt that, freedom of expression, free dissemination of ideas and access to information are vital to the functioning of a democratic government. Information is crucial for a functioning of vibrant democracy and good governance as it reflects and captures Government activities and processes. Access to information not only facilitates active participation of the people in the democratic governance process, but also promotes openness, transparency and accountability in administration. ‘Right to Information’ (RTI), passed in 2016, should be viewed  as  an act that empowers and enables the right of every citizen to access information held by or under the control of public authorities, can thus be an effective tool for ushering in good governance.

The major characteristics of good governance are participation, rule of law, transparency, responsiveness, equity and inclusiveness, effectiveness, efficiency, accountability, strategic vision and consensus-orientation.It requires that information is freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions and their enforcement. It also means that enough information is provided to all the stakeholders in easily understandable forms and media to enable their meaningful participation in decision making processes. Accountability means that

public institutions and public officials  are answerable to the people and to their institutional stakeholders. In general, an organization or an institution should be accountable to those who will be affected by its decisions or actions. Accountability cannot be enforced without a regime of transparency.

At the same time there need to be a medium of masscommunication  in a country, a medium that can convey the updates from authorities to the masses and thedemand of masses  to the authorities.  It can beargued  that the media  in a country  should  ideally be   acting as the expression of the nation which must be supported by the right of information so that the masses could be rightly informed.  Therefore, the rightful access to properand right information is  one of the main rights  of media in pluralistic societies. .

Transparency is required for access to information means that public at large is provided necessary and comprehensive information so as to make informed choices as well as be able to hold officials and institutions accountable.   This includes access to legal and operational proceedings as well as information about officials and institutions. The following are some of the important actions envisaged by the Right of Information Act.

Rights of the citizens under the RIA.

Under the,  right to information Act2016  section 2 7(2) information means any material   (3) Subject to the provisions of subsection (1), a citizen,whose request for information has been granted, is entitledto:–

(a ) inspect relevant work, documents, records;

(b ) take notes, extracts or certified copies of documentsor records;

(c ) take certified samples of material;

(d ) obtain information in the form of diskettes, floppies,tapes, video cassettes or any other electronic modeor through printouts where such information is

stored in a computer or in any other device.

At present, one of the stumbling blocks in the path ofinvestigative, analytical and popular journalism is the difficulty in getting access to the officialinformation. The bureaucracy, the police the army, judiciary and even the legislature guard and with hold information regarding even the most mundane subjects with astonishing zeal. Few journalists areable to break this iron curtain of the official non-cooperation.

With the implementation of Right of Information Act, we hope powerful   that  it willencourage journalists and society at large to be more questioning about the state of affairs andwill be  a powerful tool to check the unmitigated goings-on in the public realm. No longer our journalists  have to depend on conjecture, rumors, leaks andsources other than knowledgeable sources. The legislation which is enacted will pose an antidote tovested interests which try to conceal or misinterpret information or which try to manipulatemedia directly or indirectly to plant misinformation. Through this legislation, we hope, that  transparency inpublic, professional, social and personal sphere can be achieved.”

The media can make a realdifference to the lives of poor and disadvantaged people by:

1. Making people more aware of their rights and entitlements;

2. Enabling people to have access to government programmes, schemes and benefits;

3.Making people more aware of political issues and options and helping to stimulate


4. Educating the public on social, economic and environmental issues;

5. Drawing attention to institutional failings – corruption, fraud, waste, inefficiency,

cronyism, nepotism, abuse of power and the like;

6. Fostering exchange of best practices, knowledge resources, access to better technology,and to better choices;

7. creating pressure for improved government performance, accountability and quality, forexample in service delivery; and providing a discursive space for citizens to dialoguewith other actors in the governance process.

If properly implemented, right of information act empowers citizens of Sri Lanka to

a). Demand from the Government information pertaining to any of its departments.

·b).Demand photocopies of Government contracts, payment, estimates, measurements ofengineering works etc.

c). Demand from the Government certified samples of material used in the construction ofroads, drains, buildings etc.

d). Demand to inspect any public development work that may be still under construction orcompleted

e) Demand to inspect Government documents – construction drawings, records books,

registers, quality control reports etc.

f).Demand status of requests or complaints, details of time delays, action taken on

Information Commission’s decisions etc. in a way these are not entirely new concepts but basic principals of school of development communication which advocates bottom up communication and decentralization.

Our earnest hope is that Right of Information Act will make all of us vigilant citizens breaking the shekels of silence.  However,  all this said, with alarming recent  news,  such as “RTI “ cash starved appearing in the front pages ‘,  we have  to keep our fingers crossed, whether Right of Information Act will make our media and our people ,  a powerful  watch dog or a lap dog? Nobel laureate Amartya Sen rightly says that real freedom means increasing citizen access and opportunities to the things they have reason to value.

Theodore Fernando Warnakulasuriya is a professor of Mass Media Studies at the Open University of Sri Lanka. He is also the author of Media Effects in Sri Lanka.

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