‘Know the worth of RTI, get its maximum use’ | Daily News
Government Information Department Chief Mohan Samaranayake says

‘Know the worth of RTI, get its maximum use’

Today (September 28) is International Right to Information (RTI) Day. Officially known as the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), the day was proclaimed at the 74th UN General Assembly in October 2019.

The theme of the IDUAI-2021 will highlight the role of Access to Information laws and their implementation to build back strong institutions for the public good and sustainable development, as well as to strengthen the right to information and international cooperation in the field of implementing this human right.

Following numerous attempts for years, Sri Lanka was able to have its own Right to Information Act under the Good Governance Government in 2016. This year Sri Lanka marks the fifth year of the enactment of this much-needed legislation.

Here is what the Director General of Government Information Department Mohan Samaranayake told the Daily News about Sri Lanka’s RTI Act and the citizens’ rights to access to information.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. What is your opinion about Sri Lankans receiving the right to access information?

Information DG Mohan Samaranayake

A. Every citizen has the right to information. We inherit it. It is essential for the public to have knowledge about economic, political and social factors in order to make the right decisions and also to live accordingly. But just a document or an enacted legislation alone would not ensure this right within society. For it to be a successful move, there needs to have a just, open and righteous society. Such a society is the foundation of the people’s right to information.

Q. Your idea about the existing RTI Act in Sri Lanka?

A. I don’t say the existing law or the Act is bad or unsuitable. “Something is better than nothing”. But, this Act has so many limitations that prevent citizens from accessing information. What I see is that apart from journalists, people at the grassroots level do not make use of it as expected. In a country like Sri Lanka, the ordinary man who is engaged in a life and death struggle for survival do not make use of it. However, this Act has some good features as well. My idea is that there are some points that can be inserted into this piece of legislation. As an example, it should be proclaimed as a punishable offence if any agreement is signed or a project is implemented without informing the public beforehand.

Under different governments, there were instances where the public came to know about the very crucial development projects or agreements only after the move was undertaken. This is not acceptable at all and needs to be monitored through such Acts.

Q. Advantages and disadvantages of Sri Lankans receiving the right to information?

A. As advantages, if people have access to information about upcoming development projects beforehand, they, especially the knowledgeable and intellectual groups will be able to review the pros and cons of them. If such a mechanism was in effect, the impacts and the responses for the recent ban on the import of chemical fertiliser to Sri Lanka could have been much more effective and positive. As for disadvantages, I see the same point can be misused by the parties with vested interests to ruin possible good results as we are living in a divided society.

Q. Are you satisfied with the present system of information dissemination in Sri Lanka?

A. I am not happy with the present system. This is about both mainstream and social media. For example, during the pandemic period, we barely received scientific information about Covid-19 through these media. I don’t undermine the role played by the media during the pandemic. The media institutions implemented many good programmes to educate the public. We have to admit that. But it is not enough. I saw the broadcast media used this pandemic as a way of promoting themselves. I am not 100 percent satisfied with the electronic media which gave priority to sensationalise, create panic and make the public scared, I must say.

Q. Did mass and social media play a responsible role during the lockdown period?

A. I am personally satisfied with the behaviour of the print media than others during this period. They also made some mistakes. But, better than electronic and web-based media. However, social media are the worst. They were totally irresponsible and full of fabricated news and information.

Q. What plans does the Government have to monitor social media?

A. There was an ad hoc discussion to have a regulatory body to oversee the behaviour of fake social media accounts. It was highly criticised and opposed by various parties. However, this was not a well-organised discussion. Therefore, so far nothing is going on to monitor them. The main problem is the inability to trace the culprits in social media. As they are not properly identified or based within the country it is difficult to trace them. Anyway, this extremely harmful and dangerous social media needs to be regulated or controlled strictly.

Q. What plans do you have to ensure the journalists’ right to information?

A. As the present Director General, I am trying to do whatever is possible. But due to the Covid-19 situation, many plans have been put on hold. We are dedicated to work with and assist journalists to receive correct information with regard to the government institutions and activities at every time possible. There will be discussions with the recently appointed Cabinet Minister in charge of the Mass Media subject about the programmes to be implemented in this regard.

Q. Why aren’t the websites of many government institutions functioning properly?

A. We have identified that there is a need to streamline the websites owned by the government institutions in order to facilitate the journalists and the public with easy access to the functions of these institutions.

Q. What is the message the Director General of the Information Department gives to the public to make the best use of the existing RTI provisions?

A. Mainly, I urge the public to understand and learn about this extraordinary piece of legislature which is one of your fundamental rights. Make use of it whenever and wherever possible and necessary. When people are well aware of this law, they will make use of it more and more.

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