The much awaited Right to Information (RTI) Bill will be presented to Parliament next week, 20 years after the concept came to the fore.

Parliamentary Affairs and Mass Media Deputy Minister Karunarathna Paranawithana in an interview with the Daily News said: ‘Information is a public property’.

“It is about time the people have access to public information so that they can hold the government accountable,” Paranawithana said.


Q: Will you be able to pass the Right to Information Bill in the next few weeks?

A: Yes, on June 23, the Bill will be read for the second time, on the same day or the next day, we expect the Bill to be passed. We don’t think many would oppose it, because we believe that even the Opposition would offer us constructive criticism towards it. Everyone believes that we need the Bill. It has taken some time to get here, so there will be no problem.

Q: Do you expect amendments to be made during the second reading of the Bill?

A: Yes, there might be certain amendments. The Opposition will not simply support a Bill without having to include their amendments to it. At present, we have a few amendments made to it by local and provincial governments. When a fruitful debate takes place in Parliament, amendments are bound to crop up, but we don’t think it would affect the essence or intention of the Bill.

We will accommodate them during the committee stage or third reading of the Bill and then pass it.

Q: What amendments does the government expect to include?

A: We will not be introducing many amendments as the Bill was prepared in accordance with international standards.

Q: When the government accepted amendments proposed by the Opposition to pass the 19th Amendment, it resulted in the amendment being diluted. Will that fate befall this Bill too?

A: As I said earlier, we will only accept amendments which don’t affect the essence or intention of the Bill. If there are amendments which cause dilution or make the Bill ineffective, we will not accept them. We don’t need a two thirds majority to pass the Bill, a simple majority is sufficient. We have those numbers in Parliament. We have spoken to the MPs of the Opposition, so I don’t think they will introduce amendments which will dilute the Bill. The situation here is not similar to that of the 19th Amendment.

Q: The Bill also stipulates that the government will be given a mere six months to implement the Bill once it is passed. Will that be enough?

A: Yes, we have to appoint the Information Commission first. We have over 4,000 state institutions. We need to identify information officers in these places and appoint them. We also need to appoint regulatory officers. All of them need to be trained. We need to have forums on it. Style books and guide books need to be made. By-laws and regulations have to be amended or made to accommodate the Bill.

We believe that six months will be sufficient for this. We need to work hard, we can do it. We will need the support of all to get this done. A government always makes laws to regulate or control the people; whether it be taxation, certain controls or punishment. This is to hold the people accountable before the law. But this is the opposite.

We are trying to hold the government accountable to the people through this. So, it is the people’s law. We need our citizens to motivate us to get it done. We also need to change the mindsets of the government servants. If all those work, we can implement it soon.

Q: When we speak of changing mindsets, government servants have been used to restricting or hiding information rather than divulging it to the people. Will an Act change that?

A: Yes, because the government has been designed to keep secrets or withhold information, not to give it to the people. Thus, we have ‘state secrets’. Certain laws also forbid the release of information. But, we have to look at what ‘information’ really means. Information is a public property.

We tax people, hire officers using that money, form departments and institutions to run the government. These agencies or ministries then get together and work on certain things. Thus, a whole lot of information on what they do is collected. In the process, certain questions come about as to the work they do and the method they have followed. Thus as human resources and other assets of the government are owned by the people, the information that is collected in the process also belongs to the people. If information is a public property, why keep it away from the people?

The government machinery, however, has been designed to keep information away from the people. In a democracy, things are different; democracy requires that we keep government under the scrutiny of the people.

In Sweden, for an example, the Right to Information Bill is over 200 years old. In September, they will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Bill. When we go in for the concept of ‘Open Government’, we need to come out of our old mindsets and change.

In the beginning, certain government officers may think this as a burden and resist, but they will need to be trained for that. But, there are other government officers who are waiting for this. We will use them as pioneers or champions of the Bill. Make them RTI activists. The Bill is not a result of a massive grassroots campaign to have it, so we need to make the public aware of the benefits of the Bill.

Q: There are certain clauses in the Bill which restrict the release of information, for example, clauses that deal with national security or reconciliation. Do you not think that government officials would use these clauses not to divulge information altogether?

A: No, they cannot do that. They cannot say that all information affects national security or privacy of an individual. The Bill stipulates what information can be and cannot be given. There is only a small proportion of information in the Bill categorized under national security or privacy. People do have access to information on education, civil security, administration, health and communication. All this can be divulged. You cannot withhold information, but there are specific categories people will not have access to. For example, no one can request for a breakdown of the weapons the Army has or where will Army camps in future be situated. Those things cannot be asked.

These limitations are included in all RTI bills around the world. This does not mean that the Bill is diluted. Centre for Law and Democracy, a Canadian NGO which studied the draft said this would be a progressive Bill.

Q: When speaking of limitations, the Bill also stipulates that certain information regarding the economy is also off limits. The economy affects the day to day functions of the people. So, how can you say that this information will not be divulged?

A: We do give out certain information on the economy. For example, about taxation, the policy of development, development proposals and tenders. We give out all that. What is not divulged is information, if released, can have a detrimental impact on the economic growth of the country.

For example, if we change exchange controls of the country, and we release that information beforehand, certain parties would make use of that to create a loss to the economy. We will not make such premature disclosures. When we are discussing international trade agreements, we cannot reveal its contents. Because even if we wanted to release that information, the other country may not like that. Anyway, all state institutions produce reports on their activities to Parliament at the end of the year.

Our Bill, however, stipulates that if there is a large public outcry for certain information which has been deemed restricted, the request can be put forward to the Information Commission. They have been given the discretion to decide whether it should be revealed or not.

Q: There have been allegations that the commission has been given too much power?

A: This has to be an independent commission. If ministers or people appointed by them are put to run the commission, the commission will be blamed for being biased. The procedure followed in our country at present is that such sensitive areas should be governed by independent commissions.

Thus, members to the commission will be appointed through the Constitutional Council. The commission needs such power. They will administer information, regulate the process, monitor it and certain complaints will be directed at Courts.

It does not have judicial powers, but it can recommend cases to Courts. Some have argued that this does not have judicial powers. It should have been provided judicial powers, but we didn’t do that.

Q: What would happen to the Press Council Act once the RTI Act has been established?

A: The RTI Act states that obstacles to the release of information would be removed. The Press Council Act will have to be either removed or amended.

There have been many questions on the Press Council Act and the Press Council itself is working on certain amendments to it.

Once the RTI is enforced, we can see what legal problems arise.

Q: The Bill states that not only government institutions but also NGOs can be questioned on their activities?

A: Yes, it states that all organisations, including NGOs that use public funds or work in the interest of the public would also come under scrutiny. This is a good thing, because a lot of state funds get misused by certain organisations. We are not asking civil societies or NGOs not to work for the people. But, we are just saying that they should be accountable to the people.

Q: Do you believe that once the RTI has been passed, the people will actively seek information? Even now, certain information is available to them, but not many are interested or know about it?

A: I don’t expect a huge wave of people to go to information officers and ask for the information they need once the RTI is established. Certain areas like education may be more progressive than others. But, people may not be interested in other areas. For example, information on consumer rights, not many are interested in, it affects them greatly, but not many ask. But, we can have RTI activists and get the people interested in it. The media can also play a huge role in motivating the people towards it. Over time, the people will get used to it.

Q: We are the last country in the region to bring in the RTI Bill. Why do you think we lagged behind in this domain?

A: Yes, it is strange. In 2005, India brought in their RTI laws. We brought ours earlier than that, in 2003, but Parliament was dissolved by

then. The government which came into power after that was not interested in bringing in RTI. They were a protectionist government, they securitised everything, even drinking water. So that was forgotten. That was the delay, now things have changed. We promised to do this at elections, and we will do it.