After more than a decade of wait since it was first proposed, the ‘right to information’ (RTI) is to be at last recognised by law in the coming weeks. Sri Lanka will be the last country in the SAARC region to enact a law on the ‘Right to Information’.
All other countries in South Asia have already enacted such laws and in some countries, there is already a rich experience of the practice of the ‘right to information’. In India, for example, where there is the best established structure that services citizens’ queries for information from the government, there is even a feature-documentary film on the successful exercise of RTI by poor peasantry of a remote village.
The Indian RTI mechanism is a shining example of how ordinary citizens are empowered and social and economic activism, business activity and individual citizens are all facilitated by the use of their right to information.
Contrary to popular belief, the ‘right to information’ is not about the ability of the news media industry to access information for its production of ‘news’. That facility is only incidental to the issue.
The ‘right to information’ is about the right of the citizens of a country to access information about the way their government uses public funds – that is, funds obtained from the citizenry in the form of government revenue through all kinds of taxation and levies and duties.
The government of a country functions on public money. In addition to the salaries of all public servants and elected representatives from the President or Prime Minister downwards, public funds are the resource for all governmental work from the maintenance of public services and institutions (recurrent expenditure) to the implementation of development projects (capital expenditure) and even the waging of war to defend the country.
In terms of financial accountability, the government, therefore, is accountable to its citizens – the taxpayers — to explain how their monies are used.
This formal ‘right to information’ is already recognised in Sri Lanka at the level of the Pradeshiya Sabhas where rate paying citizens of a PS area can ask for information regarding all Sabha activities using local rates revenue. The PS is required to regularly display the accounts and descriptions of its local programs for the information of the public.
RTI is not about the simple enshrinement of the ‘right’ in the Constitution or in law. Just as much as the ‘freedom of expression’ is of no use as a constitutional right if the news media or entertainment media cannot facilitate such free expression by people, the right to information requires a mechanism or structure to enable the provision of information to the public.
Indeed, since governments are obliged to inform taxpayers about the use of their monies, it is essential that the ‘right’ to information is accompanied by a government-run mechanism or institution to enable the provision of information to the public. Thus, it is obligatory on the part of the government to ensure that such a RTI mechanism is set up immediately on legislating the ‘right’.
This is the model in those countries that provide citizens with RTI. The success of RTI will depend entirely on the efficient functioning of the RTI mechanism.
Usually, such a mechanism will comprise a national-level ‘commission’ of department, with structures down the line to provinces, districts and at local government level. At any level, a citizen will have the facility of formally applying for specific information relevant to that level. The mechanism at that level will include an RTI monitoring officer who will receive the application for information and channel it to the relevant department or unit and monitor compliance by that department or unit.
The RTI law will provide a time limit for complying with such requests for information. The RTI law will enforce the facility by providing for punishment for the failure to provide the requested information.
The news media will also benefit from RTI, but it is the ordinary citizens of the country that are the primary beneficiaries.
The RTI mechanism will relieve the citizen from a dependence solely on the news media industry for information on government activity of relevance to her/him. In the first place, the market-based news media industry only provides information as ‘news’ to meet the interests of specific media audiences. Hence all information on government is not necessarily ‘news’ as provided by the news media.
Once citizens start obtaining whatever information that is relevant to their daily life and livelihoods, their greater knowledge of how government works will empower them with a more critical understanding of national affairs and enable them to be better judges of the performance of the news media itself in their service of ‘informing’ the public.
This in turn, will challenge the news media to improve their performance as the watchdogs of democracy.