July 24, 2015
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Half a year after taking office, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has yet to make good on his promise to enact laws ensuring citizens’ right to government information.
Sirisena’s election was a shocking victory that toppled the decade long rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa. In his campaign, Sirisena promised to open up the government’s administrative books to citizens through the long-stalled Right to Information bill, which activists hope will create methods for Sri Lankans to access government information.
Sirisena, in the 100-day program he planned for his first months in office, said the bill would be presented on February 20 and approved on March 20. But draft revisions and public consultations have pushed back the process. Transparency activists were encouraged in May when Parliament approved a constitutional amendment stating that citizens have a right to information. So far, however, the government has enacted no policies by which citizens can request or view information. And instead of pursuing that change, the Parliament was dissolved early this year, in June.
Activists say most Sri Lankans aren’t aware of the proposed Right to Information bill – or the country’s need for transparency.
Several attempts have been made to pass the proposed bill, but all have fallen short at different stages of the process, says Gehan Gunatilleke, research director at Verité Research and a vocal advocate of the legislation. The Cabinet of Ministers first approved a draft bill in 2004, but Parliament dissolved early that year and did not act on the proposal. The latest attempt to pass the bill also faced a similar fate, as parliament was dissolved before the amended bill, approved by cabinet was presented in parliament.
The law, if any future government adopts, will represent a major shift in a country with a long history of strong-arming journalists and transparency advocates into silence.
Journalists face enormous challenges to accessing information, says Dilrukshi Handunnetti, a journalist and lawyer. The government tightened its grip on information at the end of Sri Lanka’s 30-year armed conflict with the terrorist outfit Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
“But the need for access to information was really great, as people wanted to know what happened in the last phase of the war,” Handunnetti says.
The government has for decades operated behind a veil of secrecy. Until the Jan. 8 election, the working environment was increasingly hostile for journalists; people were attacked and even killed for accessing and exposing information on government performance. Details about issues that are not high-priority government secrets, such as the Ministry of Higher Education and Research’s 2013 decision to accredit private universities, are hidden. Since Sirisena’s election, the atmosphere has improved. Journalists say they are no longer afraid to ask questions, Handunnetti says.
Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia region that does not safeguard citizens’ right to information. The Official Secrets Act of 1955 prohibits the sharing of official secrets or documents, and the Sri Lanka Press Council Law prohibits publication of any government secrets or information that may adversely affect the country’s economy.