The challenge is to move from a closed government to an open one. This would be the biggest challenge when dealing with the Right to Information (RTI) in Sri Lanka. As our island nation joined the rest of the civilized world in marking the International Day for RTI last week, a host of panelists at the International Conference on the Right to Information and Media Reforms, held at the JAIC Hilton on September 28 and 29, were of the consensus that the RTI would further strengthen democracy in the country.

“112 countries have RTI laws. Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Act (RTIA) is ranked 9th out of 112. It’s a very strong piece of legislation. In fact, it’s better than the Canadian law,” said Toby Mendel, Director of Canada’s Centre for Law and Democracy.

Furthermore, many of the conference’s panelists argued that the RTI’s strength will allow Sri Lanka to shift from a culture of concealment to one of transparency.

“The greatest opportunity for RTI is the transformation of our institutional culture. It gives us the chance to build a truly open society,” said Gehan Gunathilaka, Director of Verité Research. He also said that Sri Lanka’s political and social circumstances are ideal for the implementation of the RTI Act, as there is high political will and public demand to institute the Act.

“In the past, the colonial and post-colonial environments were ones of secrecy, not openness. This must change, and hopefully the RTI will be a critical element in reforming the culture of secrecy that still exists,” said Mendel, while adding that the change will likely be difficult and take a long time.

The “culture of secrecy” appears to be alive and well, as a survey conducted by Transparency International Sri Lanka found that 31.1% of those who requested information from government institutions could not obtain the documents or reports they wanted. Another 30.8% of respondents reported that only with much difficulty were they able to access their desired information.

Though there will certainly be challenges in instituting the RTI Act, there is a palpable optimism surrounding its passage. There does, however, remain a good deal of concern about the Act’s implementation, as Sri Lanka will have to overcome a great many challenges in order to properly enforce the Act and furnish its citizens with information.

Problems with Implementation

Though the government originally pledged to enact the RTI Act within six months of its ratification, three months have passed and it appears that things are running a little behind schedule.

Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Department of Government Information, told The Daily News in a previous interview that it will likely take a little longer for the Act to be fully instituted.

Moreover, the country must overcome myriad hurtles to properly implement the RTI. Some of the more pressing issues are those of public relations and creating awareness of the Act in society.

While 95% of the general public thinks that they should be entitled to obtain information, just 50.4% are aware of their right to information, according to the same Transparency International Sri Lanka survey.

While Mendel noted that it is encouraging that roughly half of the population is already conscious of the new legislation, it is clear that more must be done to engage the public. The question of how to educate people at the grassroots level drew diverse and often conflicting ideas at the conference.

Gunathilaka pointed to the important role civil society plays in teaching the public about the RTI. “Civil society activism is crucial here, as it creates awareness of issues and draws attention to specific incidents and violations. It must hold the government to account,” he said.

Kalansooriya, in the previous interview, also mentioned the importance of civil society, but said that other government ministries must get involved in raising awareness at the grassroots level. He added, however, that the government cannot be solely responsible for educating the public about the RTI Act.

This approach of encouraging civil society to do the heavy lifting clashes rather strongly with Bangladesh’s strategy of publicizing its own RTI Act. Bangladesh followed the 2009 ratification of its own Act with a massive online and grassroots campaign.

“We improved our technological infrastructure in order to make it easier for people to access information digitally. We also created a national web portal that contained over 25,000 websites dealing with RTI,” said Dr. M. D. Abdul Hakim, Deputy Director of Bangladesh’s Information Commission.

Furthermore, Hakim shared that the government formed a national-level working group that consisted of six officials that was headed by the Secretary of the Cabinet Division. The group formally planned the enactment of the RTI Act. The government also created a sixteen-member district advisory committee that coordinated programmes on RTI implementation in the district level offices.

Central to Bangladesh’s strategy, however, was its adept use of technology along with its desire to educate kids about the RTI Act. “We made a mobile app, started a social media campaign, and created many websites. It is mandatory for schools and both public and private universities to teach about the RTI. We also made videos, conducted live talk show sessions, and held public discussions, while also going on radio programmes and TV shows,” Hakim added.

Pakistan, for its part, conducted a similar, if less comprehensive campaign to publicize its own law. “The government built an online web portal, created an RTI facilitation center, set up a toll free information number, and paid for seminars and workshops in order to educate people about the law,” said Professor Kalim Ullah, Information Commissioner of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

“Awareness is the key,” he said.

While still early in the RTI implementation process, Sri Lanka appears to lack robust government-led public awareness campaigns. Though media and civil society can and should play a large role, it would appear that the government must invest more resources in setting up infrastructure to spread the news of the RTI.

Training/Information Commission

Another challenge lies in properly training government information officers. Sri Lanka has over 4,500 government institutions, and every single one will require at least a single information officer who is responsible for processing requests and distributing information.

“It will take at least three years to train 4,500 information officers. In all likelihood we will need around 9,000 officials,” said Shan Wijetunge, Transparency International’s Senior Manager of Advocacy and Public Relations. Finding the money to train so many people is an obvious challenge that many experts pointed out.

Bangladesh, for its part, spent over four years training 22,000 information officers at the ministry level and in its 96 sub-districts.

Sri Lanka has not started its officer-training programme, and this is to be expected. While training is expected to take a few years, it is necessary to start making efforts to change the air of secrecy that surrounds information distribution that both Mendel and Gunathilaka spoke about.

In the Transparency International survey, 24% of government officials reported that the government institutions at which they work do not have a clear system or mechanism for providing information. Furthermore, 66% of the officers declared that there are certain limitations imposed on them that hamper the sharing of information.

At this point, many requests for information are simply ignored or refused without proper explanation. The government hopes that training will foster a culture of transparency.

Sri Lanka’s RTI also calls for the establishment of an Information Commission, a body that will ensure that government institutions follow the laws that the Act lays out. While the Commission is not yet operational, it was an important topic of discussion at the conference.

According to Piyatissa Ranasinghe, former Secretary to the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, the Commission should handle RTI inquiries, publicize the rights of citizens, and establish guidelines and mechanisms for obtaining information.

It will, however, play a bigger role with public authorities. “The Information Commission should monitor and ensure public officials’ compliance with the RTI, mediate problems with implementation and have a hand in training,” said Ranasinghe.

“The Commission must also work with Parliament to track the progress of the RTI, share relevant information, and prepare further regulations to protect the rights of citizens,” he continued, while adding that it should also play a role in prosecuting those who do not follow the RTI law.

The Role of the Media

Most panelists agreed that the media would play a central part in spreading awareness of the RTIA. Alongside publicizing the Act, however, the media would have other responsibilities.

“Journalists should request information and act as watchdogs while they work to educate the public,” said Mendel.

Gunathilaka concurred, saying that the media is vital to changing the culture of withholding information. “We must have transparency at all levels. Everyone must scrutinize the decisions of public authorities,” he said.

It is the opportunity to reform the country’s attitude towards transparency that had so many experts excited about the RTIA. “The RTI can help establish good governance and reduce corruption, and the media must help with this,” said Hakim.

Despite much optimism, Gunathilaka cautioned the conference’s attendees not to celebrate quite yet.

“Be patient. We still have some way to go,” he said.