History of RTI in Sri Lanka

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History of RTI in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s journey to enact an RTI law was a prolonged and difficult struggle.

In 1995, a Committee headed by senior lawyer Mr. R.K.W. Goonesekere was appointed to advise (to then Government) on the reform of laws affecting media freedom and freedom of expression. The Committee recommended drafting a Freedom of Information Act. Following the report of the Commission in 1996, the Sri Lanka Law Commission, headed by Justice A.R.B. Amerasinghe, prepared a draft Freedom of Information Bill. The 2000 Draft Constitutional Bill also included a ‘Right to Information’ clause but the Bill never passed the seal of Parliament.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s print media industry had embarked on a vigorous campaign to bring an RTI law to the country’s statute books. Back in 1998, the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility, and its subsequent revision in 2008, led by the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Free Media Movement, Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka, and The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, emphasized the need for a RTI law in Sri Lanka.

Subsequently, a Prime Ministerial Committee drafted the 2004 Freedom of Information Bill which was approved by the then Cabinet and tabled in Parliament. With the premature dissolution of that Parliament, the Bill was never debated. This draft Bill was revised in 2010, as a result of an initiative taken by the then Justice Minister Milinda Moragoda. As the general elections intervened, the Bill was never presented to Parliament. In 2011, Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, then an Opposition MP, presented the 2004 draft Freedom of Information Bill as a private member’s Bill. This Bill too was not taken up for debate in Parliament. Later, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in its final report in 2011 recommended that the Government introduce RTI legislation, which was also included as an action point in the 2013 LLRC’s National Action Plan.

On 23 June 2016, the Parliament of Sri Lanka, in a celebrated move, enacted the Right to Information Act to give meaning to the citizen’s Fundamental Right to Information. It is important to remember that the RTI Act does not give us any new rights. It only provides for a process to exercise the Constitutional right of access to information that came with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 2015.

The current RTI Act was prepared by a drafting committee under the auspices of the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media based on an updated draft of the 2004 Freedom of Information Bill. The stated purpose of the Act is to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in Public Authorities by giving effect to the right of access to information and thereby promote a society in which the people of Sri Lanka would be able to more fully participate in public life through combating corruption and promoting accountability and good governance. The Minister in charge of the subject of Mass Media is given the responsibility of effectively implementing the Act.