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Right to Information: a success story from Vavuniya, Sri Lanka

Posted on 31/07/2018
By Sankhita Gunaratne

Transparency International Sri Lanka made an Information Request of the Vavuniya Divisional Secretariat, querying the lack of updates to the Secretariat’s website.

The site in question had not been updated since 2015. Information was also requested about the steps the Divisional Secretariat had taken to help and facilitate members of the public who submit RTI Forms.

The Divisional Secretariat responded by updating their website in June 2018 . Furthermore, an information board was displayed in front of the Secretariat Office, containing details about the information officer of the Divisional Secretariat. This enabled easy access to the Secretariat’s RTI Unit for members of the public, and set a precedent for proactive disclosure.

The picture depicts the website last updated on 18 December 2014 and the update following the RTI request on 19 June 2018.

Sri Lanka marked a historic victory in August 2016 when the right to information act was passed. The law now enables all citizens to access information held by the State and was internationally acclaimed: ranking third in Centre for Law and Democracy’s RTI rating.

Even though the passage of the law was a result of 20 years of agitation by civil society, journalists, politicians and activists, beyond this circle, knowledge of the law and its significance was mostly non-existent. The grant provided by the Commonwealth Foundation enabled Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) to be one of the lead organisations in Sri Lanka demystifying the law for citizens – in Colombo, Matara, Ampara, Trincomalee and Jaffna, spanning the Northern, Western, Eastern and Southern provinces, and other districts as well.

Sri Lanka’s rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (91 ) demonstrates the challenge set before the country and hopes and were fostered that the RTI law would open up the space for transparency, accountability, and an avenue for ordinary citizens to better understand government processes.

However, since the law’s enactment little effort has been made to educate people on RTI, and it is civil society that has filled that space. Through this grant, TISL has employed several techniques aimed at doing so.

Very early on, as RTI was operationalised, TISL used an ‘RTI Van’ with a large LED screen and loudspeakers, to drive through the districts, stopping in strategic locations. It ran audiovisual content on the RTI process, with staff members interacting with the public, and in certain cases, helped them to formulate RTI requests on the spot. Notably, in the Trincomalee districts, over 150 RTI requests were facilitated covering issues of corruption, access to education and health facilities. Street dramas around International Right to Know Day 2017 , newspaper advertisements, missed call campaigns and SMS shots are among the other techniques that were used.

A Manual and information leaflets were created and mirrored on a website which was regularly updated. These described case studies and the law in local languages in a simplified and accessible manner. TISL has continued to visit communities conducting small pocket meetings, listening to people’s needs and brainstorming as to how people can use RTI creatively and at times collectively to resolve problems. TISL also facilitates constructive discussions with government counterparts.

RTI has been working in unforeseen ways in Sri Lanka. While it has in many instances led to information disclosure, government actors have been known to remediate issues causing discontent without disclosing information.

For example, the residents of Akkaraipaththu in Ampara made a complaint to the Medical Officer of Health (MOH), about garbage accumulation affecting 10 families and a school in Akkaraipaththu in May 2017. The issue was communicated to the President via the ‘Tell the President’ campaign in July 2017, but no action was taken. In January 2018, a RTI was filed, requesting information on the actions taken by the MOH pursuant to the complaint. Within four days of making the request, the garbage was cleared and the MOH even asked the citizen if he could withdraw his RTI.. The citizen has refused.

Another manner in which RTI has assisted the average citizen is that it has given them access where formerly she might have been stonewalled. The stringent timelines for disclosure stipulated in the law has ensured that citizens with a good understanding of the RTI process could follow a few simple and non-confrontational steps to hold a public institution accountable.

RTI is both weapon and deterrent, enforcer and protector. Stories of the law’s success have now begun trickling in from many parts of the country. It is eminently important that these hard-won victories continue to be used for the benefit of all.

Sankhita Gunaratne is a project manager at Transparency International Sri Lanka.


Promoting effective implementation of the right to information act

Promoting civic-state engagement is essential to support effective implementation of the Right to Information Act in Sri Lanka.