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Beyond RTI: Towards Open Government in Sri Lanka

by Nalaka Gunawardene -
After many years of advocacy by civil society, Sri Lanka is set to adopt a law that guarantees citizens’ Right to Information (RTI).
With that, we will at last catch up with nearly 100 countries that have introduced such progressive laws. Better late than never – but passing the law is only a beginning. Institutionalising it requires effort and funds. Continued vigilance is needed on civil society’s part to guard against the process becoming mired in red tape.

RTI signifies unleashing a new potential. To draw an analogy from water management, opening a ‘sluice’ does not by itself mean much unless the downstream systems are in place. In both cases, the recipients need to know how to make the best use of what comes through.

Journey so far
Why is RTI such a big deal? Its basis is that in democracies, the public have every right to know what is being done in their name by those entrusted with governance.

RTI is the right to access and obtain information from public officials. This right serves several purposes: improve public participation in policymaking; promote transparency and accountability in government; and minimise wastage and corruption of state resources by public officials.

RTI and freedom of information are used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction between the two. According to lawyer Gehan Gunatilleke, who recently wrote a book on the subject (published by Sri Lanka Press Institute, 2014), freedom of information implies a citizen’s freedom to access and receive public information on request. In such a situation, the government should not violate that freedom by restricting access. RTI goes further, and implies that information is an inherent right of the people. Governments are duty-bound to provide such information.

The concept of RTI can be traced back to the principle of ‘public access’ which emerged in Europe during the 18th century. In 1766, Sweden became the first country to legislate RTI: it allowed the public access to government documents.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, recognised the right to seek, impart and receive information as part the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression
(Article 19).

RTI does not mean opening up everything. Sensitive information – related to national security, for example – is excluded. The challenge is to strike a healthy balance between full transparency and a few justified exemptions.

Indian experience
In Asia, India was a frontrunner in developing RTI laws. The campaign for RTI started in the 1990s with a grassroots movement driven by social activists and rural groups. They saw its clear value to counter the growing misuse of authority and public funds by local officials.

State level RTI laws were adopted in Tamil Nadu (1997), Goa (1997), Rajasthan (2000), Delhi (2001) and Maharashtra (2002). The national law came into effect in October 2005 after a decade of agitation.

Under the Indian law, citizens can request information from any ‘public authority’ within 30 days. It covers all branches of government -executive, legislature and judiciary – as well as institutions and statutory bodies set up by an act of national Parliament or a state legislature. Even non-governmental organisations, if they receive significant amounts of government funds, are covered.

The act required all public authorities to appoint a public information officer (PIO) to handle RTI requests. It also mandated computerizing of public records so that certain categories of information are proactively published online, enabling interested citizens to just look it up.

Since the RTI law was introduced, India has seen an improvement in governance, dissemination of information and involvement of civil society in the governance process, says Dr Rajesh Tandon, founder and head of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a voluntary organisation providing support to grassroots initiatives.

At the same time, Tandon points out that some challenges remain at implementation level. Certain states in India have been more active in creating a culture of information sharing and open government, he told me in a television interview in mid 2014.

As Indians found out, it isn’t easy to shake off centuries of misplaced state secrecy and mistrust in the public. “Old rules and procedures continue to co-exist as new laws and methods are invented The Official Secrecy Act and Right to Information Act co-exist, just as written precedent and e-governance co-exist,” says Tandon (watch our full interview: https://vimeo. com/118544161).


New challenges
In Sri Lanka, civil society groups and journalists’ organisations were at the forefront advocating RTI. Groups like Transparency International and Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) have been lobbying, training and raising awareness on the societal value of this right.

However, RTI is not only for journalists or social activists. It is a right of all citizens living in modern societies where their well-being – sometimes even survival – depends on knowing critical information. Ignorance may have been bliss once upon a time, but it is not recommended for the 21st century. Reorienting the public institutions to a new culture of openness and sharing will be an essential step. Undoing decades of habits will take effort.

Asanga Welikala, a legal scholar now with the Edinburgh Law School, said in a tweet that we need a moratorium of ‘at least two years’ before RTI law comes into force – so as to train officials and make all government procedures compliant. He also says the Information Commission must have a proper budget for promotion and public awareness of the new Act, rights and procedures. For example, how to ensure citizen information requests can be accommodated equally in both official languages and the link language? As champions of RTI, media and civil society must now switch roles. While benefiting from it themselves, they can nurture the newly promised openness in every sphere, showing citizens how best to make use of it.


Info Literacy
Public information can exist in many forms today – ranging from minutes of meetings, budget allocation and expense records, and scientifically gathered information such as census data, or trade statistics. These may be stored on paper, tape or – increasingly – in digital formats.

In recent years, with digital technologies, the volume of specialised data held by governments has risen phenomenally. Both the data custodians and public today need higher levels of information literacy to navigate through this torrent.

The good news: the web makes it easier to store and share information. ‘Open Data’ means that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. The open data approach is especially applied to scientific data and government data. But the debate is far from settled: while there are many strong arguments for opening up, some are concerned about potential misuses. Guidelines are still evolving. A key attribute of open data is its usability. Each country needs to adopt information gathering and data storage standards, so as to minimize users facing problems that arise with the use of different sevices, systems and measuring systems.

Some public data custodians in South Asia still release vast amounts of data in hard copy (paper-based) form. For example, India’s Marine Fisherfolk Census of 2010 had results running into thousands of pages of data tables – they were only released on paper. That made further analysis impossible. Undaunted, a fishers’ collective mobilised some tech-savvy volunteers to create computerised spreadsheet databases.

Like many other elements of good governance, RTI’s effectiveness depends on imagination, innovation and persistence on the part of citizens. Its best results will accrue in a society and political culture where evidence and analysis are trusted. Sri Lanka is not there yet.

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