The first panel discussion session titled “Overview of Key Systemic Strengths and Weaknesses of RTI in National Systems”, opened the dialogues on how various countries adopted very vibrant RTI Laws in their Constitutions, by recognising “Right to Information” as one of the basic human rights of an individual. RTI Commissioner Kishali Pinto Jayawardane, former Information [...]


Panel discussions: A guiding light to transparency in governance


The first panel discussion session titled “Overview of Key Systemic Strengths and Weaknesses of RTI in National Systems”, opened the dialogues on how various countries adopted very vibrant RTI Laws in their Constitutions, by recognising “Right to Information” as one of the basic human rights of an individual.

Panelists of the first panel discussion -“Overview of Key Systemic Strengths and Weakness of RTI in National Systems”. From left to right: Prof. Sadeka Halim, Kishali Pinto Jayawardane, moderator Javid Yusuf and Pablo Francisco Munoz Diaz. Pix by Priyantha Wickramaarchci

RTI Commissioner Kishali Pinto Jayawardane, former Information Commissioner of Bangladesh Prof. Sadeka Halim, and Pablo Francisco Munoz Diaz of Mexico, who is the Director General of Legal Affairs, National Institute for Transparency, and representing Access to Information & Personal Data Protection (INA), were the panelists. The session was moderated by Javid Yusuf, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Attorney-at-Law.

Revealing that the RTI Commission has handed over 180 orders on appeals, since its inception last year, Commissioner Jayawardane reiterated her remark why the RTI can be regarded as a weapon to access information from government, particularly, by those who are economically and socially marginalized within the society fabric.

Mr Diaz who represents Mexico’s Information Department of INAI, noted that, Mexico’s RTI Law is open to all individuals including those who are not Mexican citizens, and the Law doesn’t require an information seeker to reveal his/her identity when filing a petition.

The second panel discussion “RTI and Privacy/Data Protection” comprised panelists Venkat Nayak, Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in India, Jayantha Fenrnando, Director and Legal Officer at ICT Agency of Sri Lanka and Sanduni Wickremasinghe, Legal Officer, Corporate Affairs at Mobitel Telecom. The discussion was moderated by SLPI Chairman Kumar Nadesan.

With insightful presentations, each panelist presented the audience details of what “data protection” is and what it has got to do with one’s privacy, and its link with RTI.

Since the topic of “Data protection” is a relatively new one, which is evolving day by day as digital technology grows, the panelists gave the idea that, now that human beings are considered as “Data subjects” in the digital world, and it is becoming more challenging with new threats and cyber violations.

In the third panel discussion titled “Proactive and Routine Information Disclosure- low tech and high tech solutions”, the panel focused on the discussion on how voluntarily made proactive disclosure by government agencies would help ordinary citizens access basic information, without the need to file an RTI petition.

The panel comprised Pablo Francisco Munoz Diaz, Sabrina Esufally, Analyst and Head of Law at Verite Research, a Colombo based think-tank, and Piyathissa Ranasinghe, Director General of RTI Commission. The panel discussion was moderated by Vikaram K. Chand, Lead Public Sector Specialist at World Bank.

The next session titled “RTI and the role of civil society”, moderated by Lakshman Gunasekara, President-Sri Lanka Chapter, and South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), had panelists, local and foreign, sharing their experiences of using RTI for public cause and social justice.

Rasia Wickramathunge, Editor of Groundviews, a citizen journalism website based in Colombo, Chamindha Rajakaruna, Executive Director of Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, New Zin Win, Executive Director, PYI GYIKHIN in Myanmar and Amritha Johri, Member of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information in India were panelists.

To mark the first anniversary of RTI, a book titled “RTI Making the News”, a compilation of published news articles where RTI was used to access information, was launched at the end of the first day of the conference. SLPI Chairman Kumar Nadesan officially handed over the book to RTI Chairman Mahinda Gammanpila.

Delivering key remarks, Mr Gammanpila noted there is a very positive response from public servants representing various government institutions so far, when the Commission entertains appeals explaining to them why certain information considered to be ‘confidential’ for decades, need to be divulged, as the provision in the Law says so.

“We are trying to assist public officials on the provision of the RTI Law which enables them to grant access to information. However, there is a “fear psychosis” mentality among some officers who are concerned and reluctant to divulge information, fearing personal responsibility. In some instances, they want to hang on to the orders given by the Commission,” Chairman Gammanpila noted.

The first panel on the second day (9) looked at “Risks and Safety of Information Seekers,” and was moderated by Hana Ibrahim, Editor of Daily and Weekend Express Newspapers, representing the Free Media Movement. The session had speakers from Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka brief the audience on the risks faced by those using RTI in their respective countries, to obtain information.

Panelists on the final session titled- “Vital Importance of RTI for journalists. From left to right: Thomas Frigard, moderator Amal Jayasinghe, Tharindhu Jayawardena and Namini Wijedasa

Speaking on the RTI experience in Pakistan, Saima Adeel, Research Consultant at SHEHRI, a Pakistani NGO, said that RTI activists there had not faced as much of a backlash as their counterparts elsewhere in the region, because the Law itself was plagued by weaknesses. This was the “Catch-22” of RTI, she quipped, observing that the more ineffective the RTI Law, lesser the risks for information requesters. She, however, pointed out that, since 2002, 73 journalists in Pakistan have been murdered for doing their jobs, with just 5 persons convicted for these crimes.

“Those seeking information under RTI in India were being regularly threatened and intimidated by ‘goons’,” Anjali Bharadwaj, Co-Convenor, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) in India, told the audience. “Many such incidents aren’t even being documented. Nevertheless, between 4-6 million RTI requests were filed throughout India every year, with a large majority being filed by the ‘poorest and most marginalised,’ she observed, pointing out that, it speaks for the Law’s success. “At least 70 such information requesters have been killed for filing RTI applications and using such information,” Ms Bharadwaj disclosed.

“Though the RTI Law in Sri Lanka is only a year old, some citizens and activists who have sought information too, have been targeted,” revealed Sankhitha Gunaratne, Right to Information Manager at Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL).

“Much of the intimidation of information seekers had been reported from the North and East, where more people were using RTI to seek information,” Ms Gunaratne stressed. “In Vavuniya, for example, a group of 10 persons had submitted RTI applications seeking information on housing loans from a local public authority. The Information Officer had threatened the individuals and asked them to submit letters of apology for filing RTI requests. At one point, they were shown the housing loan approval form and the RTI form, and asked, ‘which do you want?’,” she said. TISL, which was facilitating the request, did not try to persuade them to continue on with their information request, as the group risked further intimidation, and even losing their housing loan benefits.

Ms Gunaratne detailed that, even some of her organization’s local RTI facilitators, who were assisting people to submit RTI requests, had been subjected to intimidation and harassment.

In some areas, TISL had found that public officials tend to see constant information requesters not only as a nuisance, but as “mentally challenged.”

During the panel discussion that followed, panelists and audience members discussed ways to mitigate risks to RTI requesters. Many were in agreement that working collectively and filing RTIs in groups, afford people more protection, as opposed to filing requests individually. The question of whether RTI Commissions should move to prosecute individuals who refuse to release information, was also discussed.

The next session was on the “Vital Importance of RTI for journalists.” The session was moderated by Amal Jayasinghe, Bureau Chief, Sri Lanka / Maldives, Agence France Press (AFP). The panelists were Thomas Frigard, Journalist and member of Norway’s Transparency Commission, Tharindhu Jayawardena, Journalist and Secretary, Sri Lanka Young Journalists’ Association, and Namini Wijedasa, Assistant Editor at the Sunday Times.

“Around 200,000 RTI requests are filed in Norway each year, with the majority of them being filed by journalists,” Mr Frigard disclosed. About 75% of all requests are granted, while 50% of RTI complaints lead to more information. “RTI is a catalyst for a transparent, democratic society,” he emphasized. Mr Frigard called on journalists to be the figureheads of RTI, stating that, “If journalists did a good job using RTI perhaps, members of the public may not need to file RTI requests.

Ms Wijedasa revealed that she was initially an RTI skeptic, worrying that bureaucrats would force journalists on deadline to submit RTI requests for even the simplest of information. A year on, she had been wrong to be skeptical, Ms Wijedasa stated, adding that, many bureaucrats were happy to divulge information and felt protected when the request is lodged under the RTI Act.

She observed that having lived for so long without RTI, it takes time for journalists in Sri Lanka to realize there was information out there they could get simply by asking. “With RTI, I have access to Cabinet decisions, Cabinet papers, loan agreements and Tender Board decisions that I earlier had to beg and scrounge for, and have some interested party with a glaring agenda give me,” she remarked. Stating that the key to using RTI was imagination, Ms Wijedasa urged fellow journalists to “keep filing” RTI requests.

Tharindhu Jayawardena from the Lankadeepa newspaper, had submitted almost 100 RTI requests during the year that RTI has been effective in the country. He observed there were still difficulties with RTI, revealing that, some 25-30 of his RTI requests had received no response from public authorities; not even a letter of acknowledgement they are obligated by Law to provide.

Mr Jayawardena presented a series of stories that he had written for the newspaper using RTI, pointing out how the Law had helped journalists obtain information they would otherwise have been unable to do. Noting that many officials were still not accustomed to giving out information as per RTI, Mr Jayawardena observed much work still needs to be done to train officials in this regard.

In the discussion that followed, attention was drawn to the fact that many public authorities at the local level were still lacking information officers, making it extremely difficult for people to file RTI requests.

The conference’s final session held under the theme, “The Vision of an RTI Law: Forward-looking thinking on the Right to Information”, was moderated by Wijeyananda Jayaweera, Former Director of the UNESCO Programme for Development Communications.

Noting that many people were still unaware of how RTI works, Venkatesh Nayak suggested that Lawyers and Law students should consider holding “RTI Clinics” to help vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of society to file RTI requests and appeals. He also urged civil society organisations to be tactical on the kinds of RTI applications they file, until the Law matures further.

Thilaka Jayasundara, Additional Secretary (Development & Planning), Ministry of Media and Finance said that, during 2017, the Ministry, with the support of several donor agencies, focused mainly on the “supply side” of RTI, by training Information Officers and creating awareness among other public sector officials on the mechanics of the RTI Law. “About 50% of Government organisations were successfully implementing RTI,” she insisted, adding that, most officials were in fact, keen on releasing information. The problem, she said, was because such authorities lacked a culture of proactive disclosure of information. Changing such a culture overnight will not be easy, she conceded, but Ms Jayasundara said she was hopeful it would change within 5 years.

“In an environment where RTI in the region seems to be in retreat due to various challenges, the first year of RTI in Sri Lanka, quite unexpectedly and against all odds, has demonstrated extremely positive progress,” opined Prashanthi Mahindaratne, Senior Legal Consultant of the RTI Commission. “Within RTI’s first year, the Commission has rendered some 250 orders, both interim and final, out of approximately 650 fully-fledged appeals. Of these, about 150 are considered to be final orders on various aspects of the RTI Act. The matters range from corruption in the State sector right up to status of probes into cases of missing persons,” Ms Mahindaratne revealed. “From these stats, it appears that citizens are becoming more and more aware of the value of the RTI Law to their everyday needs, and the practice of exercising that right seems to be evolving,” she further observed. Ms Mahindaratne also pointed out that compliance by the public sector on the RTI Commission’s orders has so far been “100%.” “One of the reasons for this might be because the RTI Commission is being seen by all stakeholders as being fair and judicious in its decision making,” she opined.

“Nevertheless, a judicious, progressive and hard working Commission alone won’t suffice,” Ms Mahindaratne stressed. “All stakeholders must cooperate towards the implementation of the law,” she added.

She however, said the public sector is yet to fully comprehend and appreciate the fundamental principle of RTI, which is disclosure of information. “Exemption from disclosure is only the exception,” she emphasized, noting that based on her experience, some information officers were trying to misinterpret the information in order to bring the information within the ambit of Section 5, which deals with exempted categories.

The two-day conference came to an end with the visit of the foreign delegates to the RTI Commission, where they witnessed an appeal before the Commission being heard. Thereafter, rapporteurs presented their observations on the progress of Sri Lanka’s RTI during its first year.

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