The implementation of the Right to Information Act (RTI) is due to be carried out in stages, Minister of Parliament Reforms and Mass Media, Gayantha Karunathilaka revealed. The government plans to seek approval from parliament to first implement the system at National level and then at Provincial and Local levels, after the Bill is approved by parliament, the Minister said. The Bill which is a main feature of the 100-day program of the government will be taken up for debate and vote next week. In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer Minister Karunathilaka assured that the strength of the bill will not be diluted in any form due to changes that may be accomodated during Parliamentary debate.

Q: How confident are you about the vote on June 24?

We are very confident. There were some concerns about the composition of the committee we propose to appoint. Besides that, everyone was happy with the bill. We conducted a workshop for all the parliamentarians to give them an idea of the contents of the Bill, and the attendance was more than satisfactory. We expect changes which will be minor. But I can assure you that none of it will dilute the strength of the law laid down in the Act. We won’t let the RTI face the same fate as The National Drug Policy.

Q: Other than in urban areas, people are still not aware of the importance of the Right to Information Act (RTI). How would you describe the importance of the Act?

Not every government is keen on bringing an RTI Act because it gives the citizens the right to access information, and also to question the government. The State is run by people’s money, so they have every right to know what is happening. Most importantly, it will make the government responsible for their actions, which is a good thing. This is what we promised when we came into power, i.e. an open and transparent government.

Q: Has the government planned how they propose to make people aware of the Act?

We have planned to get young people involved, to reach the public, by making them ‘RTI Activists.’ So, they can go, educate people on the importance of the RTI Act, which is one of the mainstream programs planned to educate the general public.

Q: How long will it take to put the system in place, after the approval of Parliament is given?

It will take at least six months. The Act requires the system to be in place within six months. So, we are trying our best to deliver it within that time. However, some matters will take a little longer. Training 8,000 government officials is a massive task.

Q: You said some matters will take a longer time. What are those matters?

Once the Act is passed, a committee will be appointed to look into the matters related. Also, we have to make bylaws, decide on regulations and most importantly, appoint officers to provide information when a citizen requests.

Q: How do you intend to implement the system? Is there a specific method the Ministry intends to adopt?

Implementing is a big challenge. We have to train officials in 4,300 government institutions. Therefore, we plan to seek parliamentary approval to implement it in stages, probably at National, Provincial and Local levels. Even in the instance of introducing the Act, we first made the right to information a fundamental right. Then the mechanism was brought in as the RTI Act . The next stage is to get parliamentary approval.

Q: The RTI Act expressly prohibits the disclosure of information with regard to several areas. For example, if such information is a threat to national security, it will not be disclosed. Are there any exceptions?

Yes, there are prohibitions as regards releasing information. However, according to the Act, if there is a huge public outcry demanding information with regard to some matter, such information could be disclosed, at the discretion of the committee.

Q: What changes does the government expect to bring about with the RTI Act?

One of the most important changes would be to change the mindset of the government officials.When a person asks for information, they will be required to provide such information. If they deny, it will amount to an offence. For example, if a child is denied school admission, by means of the Act the parents have the right to know on what grounds the child was rejected, and about the process how selections are made. We expect citizens to play an active part in this.

Q: How important is this to the Media industry?

There is a misconception that the RTI is only helpful for the media, which is not true. It is for every citizen. But, once the Act is enacted. the media will benefit immensely, because then they have a credible source to refer to. There’s no need to rely on gossip or assumptions.

The Act will make their jobs easier. Although they won’t get the requested information immediately, in three weeks time, the information they get will be authentic.