ARTICLE 19 welcomes the new government’s commitment to creating a long awaited right to information law. However the draft requires some improvement and clarification before it is adopted.
A draft Right to Information Bill was shared by the new Sri Lankan Government with stakeholders last week and is due to be presented before Parliament on 20 February. The Government has stated its intention for Parliament to adopt the law within three weeks.
The new Government’s commitment to instilling a new culture of openness and transparency is commendable. Sri Lanka has been discussing legislating to protect the right to information for many years and came close to adopting a law in 2002.
However, while the draft Bill contains many positive attributes, such as the 10-year rule on providing secret information and the overriding of existing secrecy legislation, it has a number of flaws and is not completely in line with contemporary international standards. The Bill should be improved and clarified in the following ways:
Weak provisions open to abuse
- The Bill should recognise that any person regardless of citizenship status has the right to information. The limitation may result in officials preventing marginalised people – such as those living in extreme poverty – from making requests by imposing burdensome requests for identity and proof of citizenship.
- The Bill should explicitly state that people do not have to justify or explain the reason for their request. Without such explicit provisions, some officials may try to require applicants to declare their intentions and refuse to accept them, which creates a chilling effect.
- The appointments for the Information Commission should be clarified to that only candidates recommended by the Constitutional Council are appointed, rather than by the media minister; the Secretary of the Media Minister should not be a member; the commission should choose its own president.
- The timescale of responding and providing information should be shortened. 28 working days (nearly 6 weeks) is far too long for persons to receive information.
- The provisions on republication of information that is released (a31) should be deleted and replaced with a provision stating that all information released is freely re-publishable and reusable.
Scope in some definitions is too narrow
- The term “official information” should be replaced with “information” to prevent officials determining that information that it holds is not “official” and the related definition broadened and defined as “any information in any form held by a public authority”.
- The definition of “public authorities” should be broadened to ensure that all public and private bodies that are conducting public business are covered.
- The definition of “public interest” should be clarified to ensure that the bills goals of promoting accountability, ensuring public participation, proper spending and other public interests are considered.
- The provisions for “affirmative publication” of information relating to reports and projects should be expanded. The Bill should provide for “regular publication” and include information on contracts, budgets, spending and so forth. The information should be released in open data format when applicable.
- The decisions of the Information Commission should be made clearly binding under 14(c) and should be clarified to provide for an authority to order its release.
- The provisions on fees should be clarified – currently there seems to be a presumption that requests are made with fees under 25(1).
- The exemptions require some clarification. Provision (e) is unnecessary as medical records are covered under (a), and provisions (g) and (i) are too broad. Provision (j) does not make sense, as people should be allowed to see their exam results in order to prevent fraud and improper grading.
- The bill should state that the provisions go into effect within a specific time frame (1-2 years) after its signing.
- A whole separate law on protecting whistleblowers should be adopted to ensure adequate protections.
The draft Bill is a good start on achieving the fundamental right of information in Sri Lanka. However, the Bill needs to be further improved and clarified preferably before it is put before Parliament, or at least by Parliamentarians themselves.