The Right to Information Act: for a pluralistic society From Press Council Act of 1973 to SmartPhone Age 2016 | Daily News

The Right to Information Act: for a pluralistic society From Press Council Act of 1973 to SmartPhone Age 2016

Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya. Pictures by Ruwan de Silva

"We have already completed several districts, not at grassroots level, but we are at least keeping journalists and the civil society sector informed and educated about this Act. It’s not enough. The government cannot do it alone. This is an Act that enriches democracy and strengthens the people. Not only the government, but also the civil society has a role to play. They must take it on. They should go from village to village, keeping the people educated. Civil societies are working with us in a public-private partnership type of corporation. The Minister will initiate the rapid process of implementation just after the Conference."

As the World celebrates the ‘Right to Information Day’ today (28), Director General of Government Information Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya, in an interview with the Daily News spoke of the importance of the Right to Information Act in strengthening democracy in Sri Lanka. As a new entrant into ‘Right to Information,’ the government would commemorate the occasion with a two-day international conference on the Right to Information Act and media freedom.

Following are the excerpts:

Q: Can you tell me about the process of implementing the Right to Information Act (RTI)?

A: This is the most important and vital challenge we are facing. In fact, we had a meeting this morning with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe along with the Media Minister and Deputy Minister. The Prime Minister advised us to fast track the process of implementation. There would be bi-weekly progress reviews by the Prime Minister himself. So, there are now two tracks on that. One is the establishment of the Information Commission, which is a process that is being overseen by the Constitutional Council in Parliament and as I heard, I think the motions have already been completed and the Presidential approval is pending, while that process too has to be completed with the establishment of infrastructure facilities such as buildings, support staff and so forth.

 

Q: How could you say the process is going smoothly so far?

A: Yes. But while the process is moving smoothly, it is some what challenging. From the Ministry’s side, we have to identify information officers, establish a mechanism and train the officers. It’s a whole lot of work. We must also start from the national level to the grassroots level and according to the Act, we have to complete it within six months. While three months have already elapsed, we have to fast track the system and get it implemented as quick as possible, because the entire political leadership, including the President and the Prime Minister are committed. We have a very dynamic Minister and Deputy Minister who are doing their very best to make this a success. I am sure we could achieve some goals, but we would have to go back to Parliament for some relaxation concerning the timeframe. It’s a challenging task.

Q: Could you speak about the bigger problems you are dealing with in implementing the Act?

A: If you speak on countries such as the UK, especially Scotland, when they drafted the Bill in 2000, it took five years for its implementation. You’re setting up another parallel set of governance within this mechanism. It’s not only passing the Act. That’s quite, I could not say small, but the implementation part of it is even strenuous than getting it passed. It’s also at least an equally challenging task.

Q: How are you training Government Information Officers?

A: If you were to compare other countries, the intention of this upcoming conference on the World Right to Information Day, which falls on Wednesday, is to get acquainted with the experiences of other countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We are inviting Information Commissioners of these countries to solicit their expertise and learn from their experiences. We wish to understand their training mechanisms as information officers. What the training modules are? What are the training mechanisms? We are talking about high numbers, such as 5,000 to 6,000 information officers at least. You cannot do it within a month. You have to plan it.

Q: Has training begun?

A: Not yet. Now it’s in the process of identifying information officers. Look, we have to work with this tough bureaucracy. There is a mismatch between the timeframe in the Act and the reality of the bureaucracy. So, we have to match these two. For implementing this kind of massive national work plan, you need a corporate mentality and a corporate working style, which is totally different from government structures. Any country is the same. You go the U.S. and it’s the same. The bureaucratic system is totally different from the corporate sector. But now the craftsmanship of this act has specified ways to adopt a corporate mentality. You have to have a mix.

Q: Is there a RTI awareness plan or public relations campaign?

A: Yes, that’s another thing we are doing. There is no part in establishing the systems if the people are not aware of it. So, that part we have already initiated. We have already completed several districts, not at grassroots level, but we are at least keeping journalists and the civil society sector informed and educated about this Act. It’s not enough. The government cannot do it alone. This is an Act that enriches democracy and strengthens the people. Not only the government, but also the civil society has a role to play. They must take it on. They should go from village to village, keeping the people educated. Civil societies are working with us in a public-private partnership type of corporation. The Minister will initiate the rapid process of implementation just after the Conference. He would work at getting all of these mechanisms under one roof , as the Media Ministry alone could not do so. We need other ministries, such as Public Administration, Local Governance, Provisional Council Ministries and grassroots level participation. It’s a collective effort.

Q: Does the government itself have a plan for getting to the grassroots level, or is it just going to go through civil society?

A: I think we would have to join hands with the civil society. Public awareness is not entirely the responsibility of the government. We could do something to some extent, but we would need the civil society to help us.

Q: Please explain the role of the National Media Center. How is it different from other government bodies?

A: The National Media Center will be a media think tank. We lack too many think tanks in Sri Lanka and we do not have any that would deal exclusively with the media. Zero. We need media watchdogs, which would keep an eye on the media. It’s a strategic body that looks at the conduct and content of the media and advises policy-making structures. That’s one thing it does. The second part is that it would design the voices of the government the way that they have to be communicated. We have learned some lessons about not getting the message to the people correctly. It’s a conduit between the public outreach and the policy-making. Public outreach will definitely be with the Government Information Department. The National Media Center will strengthen the government information system. The Government Information Department, which has been around since 1947, but, we do not have a think tank role here. It is an engine. It is not a thinking brain. It is a doer. So the National Media Center will do the thinking part and work with us. These two bodies will supplement each other.

Q: You touched on my next question, which is how do you take all the communications from disparate parts of the government and come out with a single, clear message?

A: It is usually incredibly difficult. But fortunately, the two leaders think alike. The President and Prime Minister, think alike, and they work alike. That was the reason why they decided to go for five years. So I am, in my position in that case. In most cases, this position turns into a political position because the ruling government appoints you. But in my case, two major political parties have to come to some consensus in appointing me. Even in a non-cohabitated government system, you find many voices. It is part of democracy. But if you have a national government with too many political parties, you might hear a lot of voices. And specifically after ten years of repression, people begin talking. At present they have freedom, which is natural and they enjoy that freedom. It’s not that difficult because my Minister is the Spokesman of the Cabinet as well, so we could draw the line. We work as a team. So it is not only me who takes decisions on messaging, but it is a team: the Minister, the Deputy Minister, the Secretary and myself. So it is a feat of teamwork. And this team has been strengthened by the National Media Center on producing the message, crafting the message and bringing them to one voice as you said. It’s a daunting, difficult task. I agree with you. But that has to be done. We have to understand the practical side of this. It’s natural.

Q: Is the National Media Center up and running?

A: Yes.

Q: How important is the RTI to democracy?

A: If you asked somebody two or three decades ago what was democracy, it was confined to universal franchise. You elect the government at elections every five years. And then you have to wait for another five years to practice your democratic rights. But now, the elements of democracy had been expanded, horizons are expanded: rule of the law, freedom of expression, right to life, right to education, right to health. These have become elements of democracy. So is the right to information. Now it is the element of securing and strengthening democracy. Without guaranteeing the right to information,

I could not think of any sought of democracy. That is one reason this government has to stabilize democracy, by starting with the RTI. With the 19th Amendment, this government, during its 100-day programme, brought in the right to information as a fundamental right.

There are legal provisions ensuring this right through a separate act. This is the establishment of democracy. I’m sure you have heard about Francis Fukuyama? He speaks about three elements in strengthening states.

The third element is democratic accountability. Without democratic accountability, you are unable to ensure the rule of law and the strength of the State. So this is the element of democratic accountability. You have to be accountable to the people.

You cannot depend totally on the conventional media, because media is agenda-driven. So why don’t you give direct access to the people for information? It has become a basic right of the people taday.

Q: How do you see Sri Lankans using the RTI? Do you see people of all backgrounds and professions using it?

A: It will take time. In Bangladesh it took five years.

Q: You mean five years for the people to start using it?

A: They slowly picked up. They passed the law in 2009 and they started using it around 2014, 2015. Now they’re slowly picking it up. South Asians are a bit slow in grasping democratic rights. Indians, they agitated for it. But only India did it. In other countries, it came from the top. It might take at least one year for them to realize what is going on. But in this age of IT and smart technologies, I don’t think it will take four or five years. It will take some time for people to grasp it and take advantage of it.

Q: Have you set up guidelines to make sure government officials saving all of their information? Is there a watchdog agency?

A: In many countries there are watchdogs. RTI-implementing watchdogs. So we have to have a monitoring mechanism.

Q: Is there a watchdog right now?

A: No. We have to establish systems, while the civil society has to do this as well. We should not do it, actually. To my mind we should not do it. The civil society should do the RTI monitoring. India has a very powerful system of RTI monitoring through civil society organizations. On the other hand, this is the Act where Commissioners are punished if they do not properly perform their role. So it’s very important that everything is on track. It’s a crucial Act.

Q: Can you comment on the progression of media freedom in Sri Lanka? How has this process been going and how do you see it continuing?

A: Well, there are two angles to that question. One angle is, yes. The environment has been relaxed. There is no political or military pressure. People who fled the country could return. They are coming back. Many of them have returned. There is no doubt about it. On the other hand, whether we have the necessary capacity and professionalism in the media to practice this freedom is a question. Because when a society is affected through the absence of democracy, the media turns victim. And for many years, the media of this country had been a victim, while media members are not used to enjoying freedom. So a lot of media critics say you need reforms in the media sector. So that is why we are talking about media reforms in this upcoming conference as well. The government has plans to introduce new laws and regulations and set up media training facilities. The government has some cohesive plans on reforming the media. But the government could only create the infrastructure and environment. Using that space professionally, is the responsibility of the journalists.

Q: Finally, could you provide a summary of what we could expect at the RTI Confab that begins on Wednesday?

A: This is to share the experiences of other countries and for us to learn from their experiences on both RTI and media reforms. The government is working on several fronts on those two subjects.

We have to learn and we also have to get the public involved. So we have opened up the conference to the public. We have given 100 seats to the public at large. So we will be recording all these outputs and we would make a publication that would guide us in our future programmes on RTI and media reforms.

We are joining hands with academia in this country, journalists and the civil society. If you look at the panel of speakers, they hail from different walks of life from Sri Lanka's society. We are trying to bring everyone. Specifically we are talking about how to build a smart citizen through smart technology. This is a new challenge in our society. We are bringing three ministries together: the Media Ministry, the Education Ministry, and the Digital Infrastructure Industry.

We will hold discussions and come up with new ideas on how to build smart citizens. So these are the new paradigms we are talking about. So the range is from the Press Council Act of 1973 to the Smart Phone age of 2016. The media spectrum spans for 43 years. It is a huge subject and we are trying to get the maximum out of it. 


 

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