Three Commissioners of the five-member independent Right to Information (RTI) Commission were appointed on Friday by President Maithripala Sirisena.

The newly-appointed Commission members are former civil servant Mahinda Gammanpila (Chairman), attorney-at-law S. G. Punchihewa and attorney-at-law Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena (nominee of the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka, the Free Media Movement, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association and the Sri Lanka Press Institute). The quorum for any meeting of the Commission is three.

The appointments were made following recommendations by the Constitutional Council after calling for nominations from organisations of publishers, editors and media persons, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and other civil society organisations.

According to the Right to Information (RTI) Act, No 12 of 2016, the nominated persons should have distinguished themselves in public life with proven knowledge, experience and eminence in the fields of law, governance, public administration, social services, journalism, science and technology or management.

Two other proposed members – law academic N. Selvakkumaran and retired Supreme Court Judge Saleem Marsoof – though initially consenting to the recommendation by the Constitutional Council, later declined to take up positions. This was on the basis that the RTI Act bars those holding public office, judicial office or any other office of profit from being Commissioners. Mr Selvakumaran is attached to the University of Colombo while Justice Marsoof will depart for Fiji as a visiting judge shortly. Two further appointments are therefore pending given the question as to whether the Commission needs all five members to function. Further, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka may need to suggest fresh names for its nominee to be represented on the Commission. Under Section 12(2)(b) and (3) of the Act, if new nominations are not forthcoming, the Constitutional Council shall make its own recommendations.

The Right to Information Act also precludes an MP or Provincial Council member and any person carrying on any business or pursuing any profession from being appointed.

The Commission is the main overseeing body monitoring the performance of public authorities and information officers under the Act as well as making recommendations for reform. It can directly prosecute before the Magistrate’s Court with stiff sentences and fines liable to be imposed on offenders. The Act’s reach is wide, going beyond government bodies and including companies in which the State has a controlling interest as well as non-governmental organisations in so far as the information sought relates to service rendered to the public.

Sri Lanka’s RTI law was, this week, ranked as the ninth best in the world by the Canadian based Centre for Law and Democracy and second best in the region, yielding only to India. Activists have however pointed to the huge challenges in implementation.