Sri Lanka: “Maybe soon, asking questions will become the norm”

March 5, 2017

GPJ-SriLanka1COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Since the Right to Information (RTI) Act in Sri Lanka took effect on Feb. 3, social media and activist circles have been abuzz with stories and experiences. Among my social media networks, some people have had positive experiences, others have had problems with filing RTI requests, while still others remain confused about what it’s all about, and the majority just don’t seem to care.

I used to belong to the “I don’t care” group too, until I began my reporting for this story. I soon began to realize the potential this law had to forge a path to an open governance system in Sri Lanka.

But perhaps the most interesting and defining interview I had for this story was with one of the commissioners of the RTI Commission, S.G. Punchihewa. A lawyer and human rights activist, Punchihewa had campaigned for many years for the right to information for Sri Lankans.

A few minutes into our interview, Punchihewa said that Sri Lankan citizens would have to learn a new way of relating to government, because they would have to learn how to ask questions.

Perhaps my confusion on this statement showed on my face, because he paused and then asked me, “Have you always asked questions?” I said, “Of course; that’s pretty much my job now! And doesn’t everyone ask questions?” If I was hoping to deflect attention away from me, Punchihewa was too much of a lawyer to give up his line of questioning.

“Before you became a journalist, did you question your teachers, or perhaps more senior colleagues, about why they made a certain decision or what was the basis for a statement they made?” he probed.

I had to pause and reflect for a minute, and Punchihewa watched me mull over his question. I finally had to say, “No, I don’t think I have asked questions like that.”

Punchihewa slapped the arm of his chair and said, “Exactly! Not only you, but all of us have been raised to not ask too many questions. And that must change if we are to get the full benefits of this RTI law.”

It’s going to need a cultural change, Punchihewa went on to say.

“And the ones who begin to ask must persevere and continue to ask and ask and ask until they receive their answers,” he said.

Respect for authority, whether family elders, teachers or community leaders, has traditionally been extended to government officials too. And questioning the motives or decision-making process of authority figures has always implied disrespect.

“Now we have to find the balance between asking questions and continuing to show respect to the people we are asking information from,” Punchihewa said.

Amid all the confusion and discussions unleashed after the RTI law was implemented, a culture of questioning does seem to be emerging. People are coming forward to ask questions, to hold government accountable to promises and claims made. Maybe soon, asking questions will become the norm in Sri Lanka.

After all, according to Punchihewa, asking questions is the right thing to do.