Starting this week, Sri Lankans will finally be able to exercise their rights to access public information.
After the long legal journey since the Right to Information (RTI) Bill was gazetted on December 18, 2015, the much anticipated RTI Act will, as per an extraordinary gazette notification released last week, be enforced throughout the island beginning February 3.
Under the RTI Act, the following institutions will be expected to maintain relevant records and provide access to information: ministries, government departments, public corporations and private organisations carrying out public functions or services, local authorities, any department, authority, or institution established by a provincial council, non-governmental organisations that are substantially funded by the government, higher educational institutions including private universities and professional institutions recognised by the state, all courts, tribunals and institutions created for the administration of justice.
Basically, any piece of information (barring exceptions on some grounds, such as national security) produced by a public institution will be available for public perusal.
There has been a lot reported about the importance of the RTI and how it can help maintain an accountable, informed, and more transparent civil society and government. Media reports have not, however, been clear as to how an average Sri Lankan could use it to his or her benefit, or about the standard procedure that needs to be followed in order to obtain information from the authorities.
The Sri Lanka Press Institute published “A Citizen’s Manual on Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Law” last year, to offer clarity on how citizens can make use of the RTI, and we’ve broken down some of its more crucial aspects.
The Procedure: How to Obtain Information
The Manual points out that in order for the RTI to be effective, public authorities should take the initiative to ensure that information is easily accessible to begin with:
“Every Public Authority is required to implement information delivering systems within their organisations, to publish lists of all information available to the public from that authority, and the cost of that information. They are also required to provide information within a reasonable time span. Public authorities are governed by the principles of maximum disclosure and proactive disclosure in releasing information to the public.”
In simpler terms, if an individual seeks to obtain specific information from a certain Public Authority, he/she will have to go through the listed/published information that is already available. If they are unable to find what they need, they can put in an official request for the information to be made available to them.
Like most things in our lives, however, this information will not come instantly, or free. The law asks every public authority to provide the requested information within a “reasonable time span,” which would probably vary depending on the authority in question. It will also be provided at a cost ‒ meaning that you’ll probably have to pay if you want to find out how much funding your Urban Council gets every year and what it’s spent on.
The fees payable for information will be decided by the Right to Information Commission, but the RTI clearly states that it is the duty of every public authority to prominently display their fees within the authority’s premises.
Individuals are expected to submit a written request to a relevant information officer (see below) informing him/her of the specifics of the information needed. This request, once properly compiled and submitted, will be issued an acknowledgement stating that the information request has been received.
According to the RTI Act, it is mandatory for every public authority to have an Information Officer according to the Act. Information Officers and Designated Officers play an important role in facilitating access to information. They are the first point of contact when a citizen needs to access information, and are obligated to assist citizens in accessing any information needed.
If an individual requesting information is not satisfied with the decision of an Information Officer, one could always appeal against that decision to another officer in that public authority ‒ this officer is called the Designated Officer. The Designated Officers will hear appeals against the Information Officers and provide a decision.
Refusing to release information will be considered unlawful, and if an officer does deny access to information, they will have to provide valid reasons.
How Soon Will Information Be Released?
Once a request for information is made, the information officer should make known of his/her decision on whether or not the request will be met, as soon as possible. After the request has been approved, the information requested must be made available within 14 days.
If the requested information concerns a citizen’s life and/or personal liberty, the response can be obtained within 48 hours.
However, if the request for information involves a large number of records, or details that would be administratively difficult to produce, the time limit of 14 days may be extended to 21 days.
So there you have it ‒ all the information you need in order to exercise your (soon to be granted) right to information. Use it wisely.
Featured image credit: Roar.lk/Nishan Casseem