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Right to Information proposal has a few loopholes

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For years, Sri Lanka has come under fire for being a poor environment for journalism. Even disregarding the occasional pistol-whipping – that’s a topic for another day - journalists suffer from the fact that Sri Lanka, as lovely as it is, has no laws on a person’s right to information.

What this means is that for all this time, there was no structure giving people the right to ask questions, and get an honest answer in return. Any conditions on disclosure were at the whim – and at the whims of the thugs and underlings – of politicians and the powers that be. Problem? Talk to the man in the white van, please.

That might change
Part of the new government’s manifesto was to pass a Right to Information Bill. Most people skipped this part because epic salary increases are much more tangible things. Nevertheless, the Right to Information Act ( RTI) has been floating around since 2001, and it’s much more important.
Because we – Sri Lanka – are entering a new age of Government, the so-called “yahapalanaya” era, and era of (proposed)  change and (supposed) transparency. However, we all know how the transparency game goes. The government is not a singular entity; it is a vast combination of many processes and people brought together, and this gigantic leopard isn’t simply going to change its spots overnight. This is where the machine of public opinion and journalism come in.
However, you can only get so much done without the right to information. How much did this road cost? Why is this contractor getting all the contracts? That’s where the RTI Act comes in; a law that gives people the right to ask questions and receive answers in return. Sri Lanka is on the verge of adopting such an Act.

It’s not perfect
An Act is only as strong as its writing, and this Right to Information proposal has a few loopholes.
Every person, it says, shall have a right of access to official information which is in the possession, custody or control of a public authority.  This Act supersedes anything in other laws, even conflicting points in previous laws. It calls upon officers in public authority to explain themselves, in writing, to anyone affected by their decisions who wants to question said officer’s decision. To enforce all this, apparatus will be set in place, and anybody who fails to comply will be tried.
That’s fine. In fact, that’s lovely. While it doesn’t specify a time limit, it gives everyone the right to examine those in authority.

However, here’s the problem: only people affected by that officer’s decisions have the right to ask. What of a journalist from Colombo writing on, say, a suspicious project in Arungambay? Or suspect contracts for roads on the other side of the island? How does one obtain information if they can’t prove they’re affected?
Or, looking at it from a paper-pusher’s angle: Does this not create grounds to question people for their interests and then refuse, all on arbitrary grounds? Or to set up a mountain of red tape concerning intentions until the information is worthless?
Also problematic is the problem that deals with the right to refuse information. Such a section is mandatory, because there is always information that needs to be protected – issues of national security; information with regard to banking, taxation, and so on.

But what about the clause that states that information can be denied if the request. “Would be or is likely to be seriously prejudicial to Sri Lanka’s relations with any State or international organization”?
What is an international organization? The Act doesn’t say. The wording makes almost anything comes to mind. Coca Cola. NGOs.  Distributors. Contractors. Engineers. The Red Cross. The Salvation Army. The company that owns Panadol. Even Bata; Bata is an international organization (from Switzerland). How and who defines what is “seriously prejudicial” to Sri Lanka’s relations with such? It’s understood that the wording is intended to protect relations with, say, the United Nations, which cannot be classified as a State. But the wording, such as it is, allows a substantially greater field of play.
Or the next clause:  The right to deny if it constitutes an invasion of personal privacy. The act does not define personal privacy, so that is entirely at the hands of lawyers. So many things can be brought under the cloak “personal privacy”, from embezzled (but personal) finances to incriminating phone records to elephants in the closet.

And oddly enough, there is a clause that states that granting information as a consequence of the act does not mean authorization to publish said information; make of that what you will. It does not explicitly forbid, but nor does this “we can neither confirm nor deny” style of writing make any sense here.
Enough material
Don’t get me wrong: the RTI Act is far, far better than no Act at all. But when doing something, it’s always advisable to do it right. Many countries have RTI Acts in place, and an excellent example of one would be India’s Right to Information Act. India, the country next door has a very solid RTI Act that neatly avoids many of the holes in ours.  It wouldn’t hurt to put our papers alongside a few others and see what we can walk away with.

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