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It would appear that the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka would be celebrating more than the freedom from its colonial masters while celebrating freedom of information.
The Right to Information Act will come into effect from February 4, 2017. During a recently held meeting with Minister of Mass Media and Information Gayantha Karunathilaka and Director General of Government Information Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya, Mahanayaka of the Malwatta Chapter Most Ven. Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera pointed out that people still lack awareness of the Act and the rights afforded by it.
“There are limitations as to what government authorities can do to make the public aware. Government can only facilitate,” said Dr. Kalansooriya.

He pointed out that other stakeholders such as civil societies and community based organizations should take it to the grassroots level. “If not, the subject will be confined to conferences and lectures in Colombo”, said Dr. Kalansooriya.

Kalansooriya said that they are discussing the Act and its implications in several weekly TV talk shows. “The Government Information Department is going to every district talking to civil society organizations. In fact, we have already visited eight districts and we plan to finish all 24 before the end of this year,” said Dr. Kalansooriya.

Public take on the Act
Civil Superintendent, Nadeesha Sandamali said that the Right to Information Act is for the best. “Corruption can happen in any organization. But people do not get to know about this due to lack of access to information. Because the Act grants access to information it might actually reduce corruption and fraud,” said Nadeesha.

“People are not aware of the Act,” said Assistant Chemical Engineer, Lakshan Seneviratne. “But this law affords any person the equal right to access information and data from government departments, companies any private organizations, which I think is good.”
Referring to the awareness programmes naturalist Ishan Seneviratne said that the Act is ineffective as it has still not reached grassroots level. “These are the people who seek most of the services from government institutes. Awareness campaigns should focus on ground level organizations and groups”, he said.

“It’s a good Act, in fact, it’s long overdue, but I don’t see how it could make a huge difference in my life” said ecologist, Suranjan Karunarathna.

Benefits to public
“This is not an Act that came about due to public demand. But the public has to realize that this Act is very important for them,” said Attorney-at-Law Jagath Liyanarachchi of Transparency International Sri Lanka.

He   explained that the major benefit for the general public afforded by the Act is the ability to access information from the government institutions. “The general public has no access to information under current circumstances and government institutions are not legally bound to provide such information even when the information requested concerns the particular individual who requests for it,” explained Liyanaarachchi.

“For example if someone applies for a building plan approval to a Divisional Secretariat, the person cannot inquire as to why it’s getting delayed or why someone who applied later is given priority. No official is obliged to provide explanation. Or why someone else was picked, over an individual, for a job. Often the real reason behind such situations is corruption”, Liyanaarachchi charged.

Moreover, he explained that the Act affords access to monetary information, such as how much was spent on a public road, who the contractor was, standards adhered to or even the quality of various concrete mixtures. Certain government organizations have been known to withhold information required for lawsuits, according to Liyanaarachchi.

“The general public was previously not privy to such information.  On the other hand
some members of the public were afforded privileged information, using it to gain undue advantages”, said Liyanaarachchi.

“If the information is refused or not granted, any citizen can follow the appeals process under the Act. This can be taken all the way to the Supreme Court. If the RTI Commission is informed of a certain official either withholding information, providing false or incomplete information, a suit can be filed in the Supreme Court against any such person,” said Liyanaarachchi.

If the applicant is not satisfied with the decision, he or she can appeal to the designation officer. If the applicant is dissatisfied with the decision of the designation officer, within two months he or she can appeal to the RTI Commission. If the applicant is still not satisfied he or she can appeal to the Court of Appeal. This can go up to the Supreme Court under the provisions of the Constitution.

“If someone feels that he or she has been provided false information, he or she can complain to the RTI Commission, following which the Commission will conduct an investigation,” said Liyanaarachchi.  But information comes at a price and the RTI Commission decides the charges of various forms of information. Such information will be displayed at every government institution or department. This is a legal requirement of the Act, according to Liyanaarachchi.

First the RTI Commission has to be appointed and charges of information decided and gazetted. Public bodies to which the public can apply for information will also be gazetted.  The Act requires all this to be completed by February 4 when it comes into force.

Liyanaarachchi pointed out that government officials are traditionally reluctant to provide information to the public. “This mentality has to change. The government may have to spend a large sum on this endeavour initially, but this will make up for all the money wasted on corruption”, he claimed.