Sinopharm vaccine: RTI Commission orders NMRA to release details before December 1View(s):
The Right to Information Commission has ordered the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) to release before December 1 the minutes of meetings it held to grant approval for the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine donated by China to the Chinese people here and the technical evaluation report by the expert committee on the vaccine.
Issuing an order on the appeal filed by Transparency International of Sri Lanka (TISL), the Commission also noted that, if NMRA failed to comply with the decision of the Commission before the date, “the Information Officer and the Public Authority shall be prosecuted before the relevant Magistrate’s Court under Section 39 of the Right to Information Act No. 12 of 2016.”
When TISL filed the information request on March 26 last year, the Information Officer rejected the request on the basis that the requested information is exempted information covered by Section 5(1)(b)(ii), 5(1)(g) and 5(1)(i) of the Right to Information Act.
Dissatisfied with the response of the Information Officer, TISL lodged an appeal with the Designated Officer on April 29, last year, but the Designated Officer failed to respond within the time period stipulated in the Act. Thereafter, the global anti-corruption agency filed written submissions to the Commission pointing out that the Information Officer failed to provide an explanation for the rejection of the RTI request justifying the grounds used for the rejection.
During the commission proceedings, it was revealed that NMRA contended that a non-disclosure agreement existed between a private company named ‘Ceyoka Pvt. Ltd’ which the state agency has treated as a ‘third party’ in terms of Section 5(1) and the manufacturer in regard to the vaccines.
“It is our view that, any agreement that a so-called third party enters into with yet another party cannot, by any interpretation of the language in Section 29 (1), be encompassed within its ambit. The Public Authority has failed to establish that the information in its possession, custody or control had been given to it confidentially by a third party. Therefore, its resort to Section 5(1) (i) read with Section 29, to refuse the information in issue, is not justiciable under and in terms of the RTI Act,” the Commission declared in its order.
The Commission also noted that NMRA was directed to justify the harm caused to the competitive interest of the third party by the release of the information, which moreover must fall within the protection of the Intellectual Property Act, No 36 of 2003. “Upon failure to do so, information that was no longer the subject of ongoing negotiations was ordered to be released and accordingly so released by NMRA.”
The three member commission that heard the appeal held that it is not evidenced on the facts as to how, the release of information is likely to be ‘seriously prejudicial to Sri Lanka’s relations with any State’ or in relation to international agreements or obligations as per Section 5 of RTI Act. “What is in issue here is the information that has passed between the Public Authority and a private company (‘Ceyoka Pvt Ltd’) which does not attract the applicability of Section 5 (1)(b)(ii).”
Therefore, the Commission determined that the information requested by TISL does not fall within the exempted information in any of the subsections of Section 5(1) and that, in any event, the release of the information is justified by the public interest override in Section 5(4) of the RTI Act.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, open government policies and practices of the government and its regulatory arms, including the NMRA, are fundamentally important. These considerations are particularly so in regard to the manner in which public funds are utilised to procure vaccines along with the principles and processes followed in vaccine procurement. This underlines the public interest in Section 5(4) of the RTI Act during the context of a public health emergency, the order said.
The appeal was decided by the three Commissioners led by Chairman Retired Justice Upali Abeyrathne, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, and Jagath Liyana Arachchi.
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