By Rahul Samantha Hettiarachchi
In Sri Lanka, many public authorities inadvertently block the public’s right to information guaranteed by the Right to Information Act. Therefore, the right to information, a hallmark of a democratic society, is under serious threat. Integrity, which is dependent on the efficiency of a country’s public authorities, is a distinctive feature of any democratic government. Citizens’ access to information is crucial, and public authorities of a responsible government must ensure that right. If those institutions fail in doing so, informed citizens must struggle to safeguard that right.
The Right to Information Commission (RIC) has directed 18 offices of Superintendents of Police (SP) in the country to comply with statutory time limits set out by the Right to Information Act in providing information requested by the public. This has been done in connection with information requested about the number of people arrested for holding election rallies and violating health guidelines despite their not being correctly informed of the Ministry of Health gazette notification issued during the 2020 Parliamentary Election. Applications were sent to 42 SP offices island-wide on 14 September 2020, but only nine offices – Kankesanthurai, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Kuliyapitiya, Kalutara, Kandy, Batticaloa, Tangalle, and Panadura – responded duly. 33 other SP offices and the IGP office in Sri Lanka failed to provide the requested information.
The order from the RIC further states that upon receipt of a request under Section 24(3) of the Right to Information Act, an officer “should immediately send a written notice of information requested to the citizen who requested it under Section 25(1).” The authorities can decide whether to provide the requested information within 14 days of receiving the request under Section 24 or to reject the request on one or more of the grounds stated in Section 5 of the Act. In either case, the decision must be communicated to the requesting party. The Commissioner has pointed out that the 33 SP offices in question have not fulfilled their statutory responsibilities.
The above order has also been issued to 10 Medical Officer of Health offices in the Matara District who failed to respond to RTI requests. The commission also issued regulations to the Badulla SSP office which refused to provide requested information under Section 5 of the Right to Information Act. The RIC order emphasized that the information requested in this case did not fall under the provisions of Section 5. An appeal had earlier been lodged with the IGP on 12 October 2020 related to the non-issuing of the requested information to which the IGP couldn’t respond favourably. The RTI Commission has decreed that it will hear appeals of failures to comply with its prior notices to the relevant police offices.
In addition, the RIC has given prior notice to eight SP offices in Anuradhapura, Matara, Kurunegala, Colombo South, Ampara, Polonnaruwa, Embilipitiya, Nikaweratiya, and the IGP office, which have not complied with requests for information despite notices from the commission that appeals against them will be heard from 12 March 2021. The notices further stated that under Sections 25, 28, and 31 of the Right to Information Act No. 12 of 2016, action should be taken within seven days of receipt of the letter. The applications for information were originally submitted to the SP offices on 12 September 2020. Upon their failure, appeals were made to the IGP on 12 October 2020 to which the IGP office failed to respond. The appeal to the Right to Information Commission took place on 04 December 2020. The appeal was taken up for hearing about seven months later. State institutions that ignore notices, decisions, and orders of a constitutionally-established commission for the right to information of the citizens is a threat to the democratic functioning of a country.