Fighting for your rights | Daily News

Fighting for your rights

Information is precious. As journalists, it’s our work to chase it, and publish it.

In my last column, I wrote about our newspaper’s initial requests under the Right to Information Act, and how the different public agencies responded to us. As a quick scorecard: the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka is great, and really knows how the law is supposed to work.

The office of the Registrar or the Supreme Court, however, repeatedly hung up on me, and has not responded to our written request within the 14-day window.

But, that’s for another time.

This week, we’ll look at how people are using the Right to Information Act in their own lives, to hold government agencies accountable in a way that was never possible before.

No land, no money

Here’s the story of a man from Gampaha, who is a client of Transparency International Sri Lanka’s legal aid clinic. They asked that I withhold his name, as his case is currently before the Right to Information Commission, the legal body which rules on disputed RTI requests.

According to his application, this man owned a piece of land in Gampaha, which was seized by the government to build the Colombo-Katunayake highway. But he says he was never paid for it. When he went to get an answer on why he never received compensation, he says details about his title to the land had been changed in the registry.

For the past seven years, he’s been trying to figure out why. He says he’s submitted multiple letters to the District Office in Gampaha, and has never received an answer.

After the Right to Information Act went into effect in February, he crafted an RTI request with Transparency International and submitted it to the District Office. Finally, he received an acknowledgement that his questions were received, and that they were going to the RTI Commission for assistance.

The RTI Commission, which acts like a court of appeal, has been influential in making the Act actually work on the ground. The Commission has already ruled on over 50 major appeals, and reviewing records of the proceedings shows that the commissioners often side with the release of information when government officers want it withheld.

Privacy versus public interest

Take the case of E. A. N. D. Edirisinghe, a Principal at the Technical College of Matale. Edirisinghe requested information from the Director-General of the Department of Technical Education and Training about the qualifications for promotion.

According to Commission records, Edirisinghe was a Grade II officer, trying to be promoted to a Grade I. He wanted to see letters outlining the qualifications for the position he and 18 others applied for.

But when he asked for the documents in an RTI request, the information officer denied it, saying it was an “unwarranted invasion of privacy” under Section 5 of the Act.

Edirisinghe appealed that decision within the department, and did not hear back for over a month, much longer than the 14-day timeline required by law.

When he appealed to the RTI Commission, Department officers said they were not sure about their authority to release the letters, because they contained information about third parties.

The commission, in June, ruled in favour of Edirisinghe. “The Act states that where a public authority is in possession of the information requested they are bound to provide such information,” Commissioners wrote in their decision.

They said the information should be released and the private information about third parties redacted.

But cases before the Commission are not always so clean.

Right to Education

M. G. Lalith Ananda submitted an RTI request to the Ministry of Education, looking for information about school admissions. He believes, court documents show, that the sons and daughters of powerful people are being let into National Schools contrary to the government circulars which dictate school placement.

So he submitted a request asking for the things like the names and professions of doctors, judges, university lecturers, and government servants whose children were admitted to national schools because school officials made exceptions.

But it appears he ran into trouble pretty quickly. He never heard back from the Ministry of Education. At a hearing before the RTI Commission, the ministry’s information officers said they had responded to Ananda, but the letter was sent back to them in the mail without ever reaching him.

They argued that they could not give Ananda the information he wanted, because it didn’t exist. According to the ministry, no students had been admitted to national schools contrary to the law.

Curiously, though, the ministry representatives added on that “the Secretary to the Ministry had discretion in that regard.”

The whole proceeding seems to have put the RTI Commission in a tough spot. On the one hand, Ananda continued to say that he believed students had been admitted to schools against government circulars, despite what the ministry said.

But on the other, there was no evidence before them that Ananda was right.

“The Appellant states that it is his firm belief that admissions had taken place contrary to the said circulars,” the Commissioners wrote in their ruling. “But it appears that this is only his belief.”

But they left words of warning with the representatives from the ministry. In terms of the “discretion” the Secretary of the Ministry of Education may be able to show in admissions, “it is a principle of settled law that unfettered discretion cannot be exercised by a public functionary,” they said.

They also said that if any facts had been misrepresented in front of the Commission, ministry representatives could be sanctioned.

They said they couldn’t proceed any further with the current appeal.

In the hearing records, Ananda indicated he would file a new, more specific RTI request with the ministry, focusing only on girls’ schools in the Colombo area.

I tried to make contact with Ananda multiple times by phone and email to discuss his request, and to talk about why he believes some children are getting preferential placements, but I was unable to reach him by press time.

RTI Commissioners say citizens are filing requests at a steady clip, and that their caseload grows by the day.

If you’re reading, and you have questions for your local Road Development Authority office, or the Election Commission, or any other government agency: file a request.

There are submission forms available in Sinhala, Tamil, and English at www.rti.gov, and non-profit organisations like Transparency International can provide legal advice from its offices in Colombo, Matara and Vavuniya.

Access to information is your right: so why not use it?


 

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