By Chandani Kirinde.
The long-awaited Right to Information (RTI) Bill that seeks to give every Sri Lankan the right of access to information which is in the possession, custody or control of a public authority was presented to Parliament on Thursday by Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Media Gayantha Karunatillake.
The Bill which was gazetted in January was presented to the House after all nine provincial councils gave their consent to it. However the Northern, the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils have suggested amendments to the Bill before it gets parliamentary approval.
Outlining the framework for the people to access information, the bill envisages the setting up of a five-member RTI Commission and the appointment of information officers in every public authority to assist citizens who wish to obtain information under this Act.
Those making a request for information will have to do so in writing giving details of their request, specifying form and language in which they prefer access but will not be required to give any reason for such a request or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him or her.
The Bill makes it mandatory for all records to be duly catalogued, indexed and preserved by every public authority. In the case of those records already in existence, they will need to be preserved for 10 years and in the case of new records which are created after the law becomes operational, for 12 years.
Public authorities will also be required to preserve all their records in electronic format subject to the availability of resources.
However, the Bill also cites several specified areas, to which access to information will not be granted.
These include personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual concerned. However, such information can still be obtained if the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information or the person concerned has consented in writing to such disclosure.
The Bill also prohibits the disclosure of such information that would undermine the defence of the State, its territorial integrity, or national security or would be or is likely to be seriously prejudicial to Sri Lanka’s relations with any State, or in relation to international agreements or obligations under international law, where such information was given by or obtained in confidence.
The disclosure of information that may cause serious prejudice to the economy of Sri Lanka is also prohibited under the proposed law.
These include disclosing prematurely decisions to change or continue the Government’s economic or financial policies relating to exchange rates or the control of overseas exchange transactions, entering into of overseas trade agreements; information, including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, protected under the Intellectual Property Act of 2003 and the disclosure of information which would harm the competitive position of a third party unless the public authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information.
Disclosure of any medical records is also banned, unless it has the written consent of the person concerned. Access to information is also denied with regard to any communication between a professional and a public authority, any communication between the Attorney General and any officer or a public authority assisting the AG in the performance of his or her duties. Information required to be kept confidential by reason of the existence of a fiduciary relationship will also not be given access to, under the proposed law.
NPC wants RTI expanded to private authorities Access to information held by private authorities if such information is necessary in the public interest is one of the 19 amendments the Northern Provincial Council has recommended to the Right to Information Bill.
The council has given its consent to the Bill following a debate. But the resolution on the Bill recommends that the public must have access to information held by private authorities and Bill should be amended in such a way that it should refer to “public and private authorities” instead of just “public authorities”.
Another amendment the council seeks refers to Section 8, in terms of which a minister should publish a biannual report, giving information about the ministry, its duties, functions, activities and responsibilities of employees and details available to citizens for obtaining information.
The council recommends that the report should also contain information about mechanisms to entertain complaints and respond to direct requests. The ministry should also state in its report how it dealt with the complaints and requests and publish a summary.
The council also recommends that the bill should contain provision whereby the public will also have information about the information officer — his or her name, functions and contact details.
In provisions referring to correspondence, the council recommends the rewording of the provision so that information can be sought and obtained in Sinhala and Tamil, which are official languages, and English.
Noting that information on people in custody is matter of high importance to the people of the North, the council observes that the draft bill only grants the right of access to information concerning “the life and personal liberty of the citizen making such request” for information. But the council insists that the bill should contain provision to allow third parties to access information about others whose life and personal liberty are in question.
“Where the request for information concerns the life and personal liberty of a person, the response to it shall be made within forty eight hours of the receipt of the request,” the council resolution says.
The council also notes that the Right to Information Commission is virtually impotent since it has no powers to impose any sanctions on anybody for noncompliance. “This needs to be attended to as otherwise the Commission will not be able to enact its writ and further the democratic cause for transparency,”
With regard to the requirement to maintaining all categories of official records for twelve years, the council is of the view that it is an unnecessary burden on every public authority. It observes that some categories of records may not be required for any official purpose beyond two years and the Right to Information law should not become a bar on the destruction of records that are no longer necessary for official use and have no archival value.