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Sri Lanka: Right to Information Legislation Considered

(June 28, 2016) On June 24, 2016, the Right to Information Law, with amendments, passed its second reading in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, following a debate that began the day before. The draft legislation had been introduced in the legislature on March 24 by the Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Gayantha Karunathileka. (Sri Lanka Parliament Passes Right to Information Bill with Amendments, COLOMBO PAGE (June 24, 2016); New Cabinet, DAILY MIRROR (Sept. 4, 2015); Right to Information Bill in Parliament Tomorrow, NEWS.LK (June 22, 2016).)

After a second reading, proposed laws are sent to committee and then eventually face a third debate in the unicameral Parliament. (How Parliament Works: Government Bills, Parliament of Sri Lanka website (last updated Nov. 4, 2015).) The country did not previously have a law providing for public access to information held by the government. (U.S. Department of State, Sri Lanka, § 4, COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES FOR 2015.)

The draft had been amended after a May 2015 Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruling that some parts of the text as it then stood violated the country’s Constitution; without the amendment the draft legislation would have needed a favorable two-thirds majority vote in the legislature to become law. (Sri Lanka Parliament Passes Right to Information Bill with Amendments, supra; An Act to Provide for the Right to Information … (Apr. 2015), SRI LANKA BRIEF (last visited June 27, 2016).)

Provisions

Section 5 of the draft law is designed to provide a “right of access to information” under which citizens can obtain data in the “possession, custody or control of a public authority.” (Press Release, Parliament of Sri Lanka, “Right to Information” Bill Passed (June 24, 2016).) The draft also provides for situations in which such access to information can be denied, creates a Right to Information Commission, and establishes procedures for the Commission. One additional aim is to create a culture of transparency, so that the citizens can participate in public life. (Id.)

The provisions will apply to a wide variety of bodies, including government offices, both national and local; public corporations; non-governmental organizations that are mostly funded by the government; institutions of higher education; and courts. These bodies must not only provide public access to information, they are required to maintain records and if possible keep those records in an electronic format. Public offices will be required to appoint information officers to handle requests from the public for information. (Id.)

Under the proposed provisions, access to information could be denied for a number of reasons, including if the information

  • is personal and of no public interest;
  • involves medical records;
  • concerns matters of state defense or confidential matters related to international agreements;
  • could harm the economy of Sri Lanka;
  • reveals trade secrets;
  • includes communication between professionals and public officials that should not be disclosed;
  • could hinder crime detection;
  • would result in contempt of court;
  • would infringe parliamentary privilege; or
  • would damage the integrity of examinations. (Id.)

The Right to Information Commission would monitor how well public authorities and their information officers are carrying out the law’s provisions. It will have five members who are appointed by the President and one member nominated each by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka; organizations representing publishers, editors, and other media professionals; and other civil society organizations. Decisions on access to information made by information officers can be appealed to the Commission; Commission decisions in turn may be appealed to the Court of Appeal. (Id.)

The Deputy Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Karunarathna Paranawithana, has said that the Right to Information Commission would not be subordinate to the Ministry, but would be independent. He added that the Commission “is not an instrument used to suppress media. But media has a responsibility to provide actual facts and the truth to its readers, viewers, and the listeners.” (RTI Commission Is Not a Cats-Paw – Deputy Minister, NEWS.LK (June 24, 2016).)