An online discussion on the “Right to Information: Gains of the Present and Priorities for the Future” was held on 3rd of May 2021 to mark the World Press Freedom Day. .
The online discussion was jointly organized by the Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Pathfinder Foundation.
Yashvardhan Kumar Sinha: Chief Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission, New Delhi, India, Kishali Pinto Jayawardena: Commissioner, Right to Information Commission of Sri Lanka, Ashwini Natesan: Independent researcher and advocate, Shyamlal Yadav: Senior Editor, The Indian Express, Jayantha Fernando: Director, Sri Lanka CERT and General Counsel, ICTA and M.Sridhar: former Commissioner, Central Information Commission of India were the panelists of this session. The session was moderated by Kumar Nadesan, Chairman of Sri Lanka Press Institute.
Key takeaways from the webinar:
Yashvardhan Kumar Sinha: Chief Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission, New Delhi, India provided insights into the RTI situation in India.
- The Right To Information Act has been in force in India since 2005.
- In the year 2019, 30.7 million appeals were received by the Commission and the Commissions in the States and 10.8 million appeals have been resolved.
- Only 19,183 appeals were received in the first quarter of 2019, where 17,016 appeals were resolved.
- Although the number of appeals has decreased compared to previous years due to the spread of the Covid 19, it has been a massive success in terms of solutions provided.
- Even though much more steps should be taken to strengthen the RTI in India, a considerable number of people in India are making use of the RTI considering it as their right.
- In particular, people are resolving electricity issues, driving license issues and electricity bill issues through the Right to Information Act.
- Moreover, it is evident that this law is being used against corruption as well.
- People are aware of the mechanism for obtaining information. Thus, they effectively make use of the right to information act .
We have also resolved appeals regarding minor issues presented to us.
- However, RTI activities in India have been severely hampered by the spread of the Covid-19. The Madras High Court has also ruled in favor of the activities of the Commission : it has ordered to expedite the activities of the Central and State Information Commissions amid the spread of the Covid -19.
- At present the Commission conducts inquiries through video and audio conferencing technologies.
- Thus, it is evident that many people are participating in the inquiries via online platforms without physically attending the sessions. This has been well-received.
- Even though technology is a massive challenge for many , some are constantly submitting their informative appeals. It shows their interest.
- However, government officials must voluntarily report the information to the public. So that it will definitely reduce the need for informative applications.
Kishali Pinto Jayawardena: Commissioner, Right to Information Commission of Sri Lanka shed light on the RTI situation in Sri Lanka and the way forward.
- The main purpose of the Right to Information Act is to empower citizens. Since 2003, there have been various struggles to enforce the law in Sri Lanka..
- Various parties, including politicians, lawyers, civil organizations and the media, took part in the struggle, which lasted for 13 years.
- As a result, the bill was passed unanimously in Parliament in 2016. It has been observed that over the past four years the law has been more widely used by ordinary people, than by journalists and civil society organizations.
- It was a massive success. The law provides an opportunity for people to question the government.
- However, government organizations must come forward to release information voluntarily.
- A vast number of women have voluntarily submitted the information application. Many successful RTI stories have been reported in our country, but all of them are not published in the media.
- Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our commission faces enormous challenges , especially in conducting the meetings, discussions and hearings. The commission is currently holding discussions on how to overcome these issues. There is a massive problem in resource allocation for the Right to Information Commission. But in India this may not be an issue.
- Although the law stipulates that our Commission will receive funding through Parliament and our Commission is included under the Ministry of Media, all ministries in the country are required to respond to the Right to Information Commission on the basis that it is a government organization. Thus there are problems with the commission being included under a government organization that has to respond to the commission. This affects the independence of the Commission.
- The appointment of members to this Commission should never be made as a political appointment.
- Under the current law, the President appoints members to the Right to Information Commission on the recommendation of civil society, the media community and the Bar Association.
- However, all powers under the 20th Amendment are vested in the executive president. The term of our commission expires next September.
- The Right to Information Commission has been given strong powers through the Right to Information Act. Accordingly, the key matter is whether government officials who are not bound to the Commission’s decisions can take legal action against them through the courts.
- It is commendable that this law has provided more benefits to the public than they expected.
- It is never acceptable to claim that there are no information officers in government organizations to provide information. The head of the government organization will be the information officer through the Information Act.
Shyamlal Yadav: Senior Editor, The Indian Express, India brought forward the journalist’s point of view on the subject.
- The law is in force in about 120 countries under various names, including the right to information, freedom of information and access to information.
- No one has publicly criticised this law. However, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the only one to criticize the law and said it was a “grave mistake”.
- The law was enacted in India when Manmohan Singh was the country’s Prime Minister. However he has never criticized this law. The media has been pushing for the implementation of this law in India since 1975.
- So far I have submitted over 10,000 RTI applications. I haven’t written 10,000 articles . All journalists, like me, should use this law and never be dissatisfied when the applications are rejected. They must apply continuously.
- A fund was raised by the Prime Minister of India to provide relief to the victims of Covid-19. An RTI application was filed asking for information on the total amount available under this fund, but it was rejected. In retaliation, I filed an RTI to 400 government agencies in the country to find out the full amount of money that they had contributed to the fund.
- This is exactly what should be done when the RTI application of a journalist is rejected. Similarly, I have submitted the RTI applications to the government organizations in all 607 districts of India.
- I have written many articles through the responses I have received. It is the job of the journalists to disclose information to the public that is not revealed by the government organizations.
- Moreover it is not the job of the media to apply for information that has already been disclosed by government organizations. On the other hand, government organizations should voluntarily provide information to the public. That is the important duty of the government organizations.
- All journalists work hard in this field. This law is for the people. Thus, people should use this law effectively.To this end, the members of the Information Commission should be independent.
Kumar Nadesan, Chairman, Sri Lanka Press Institute:
- The accountability of the government is essential to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Therefore, the Right to Information Act enforced by the government is instrumental to this end.
- It is not yet clear why information that belongs to the public is being hidden. Thus, corruption can be eradicated by maintaining transparency in the country through the voluntary dissemination of information by government officials.