Interview + S.G. Punchihewa:
Only Sri Lankan Public Can Ensure Success Of The ‘Right To Information’ Act
Lawyer S.G. Punchihewa talks about whether the Sri Lankan government is trying to prevent the public from using the Right to Information Act.
Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Act was passed just under one year ago, in August 2016. The Catamaran spoke with lawyer, human rights advocate and member of the special commission appointed to facilitate the new Act, S. G. Punchihewa, as to how successful he believes the law has been.
The Catamaran: As an advocate of this law, are you happy with the way it has been implemented over the past months?
S.G. Punchihewa: The success of this act really depends on how the public react. The government may no longer tell us which stories are relevant and which are not. Except for a few subjects, such as security, all other things should be open. In March, the first month following the implementation of the Act, nearly 3,000 applications were received. That is great. In India, with a similar law, the situation has not been as successful. I believe it is because of the higher literacy rate here in Sri Lanka. Having said that, although the public is engaged, our public servants are not – they don’t like to change the culture that they are accustomed to. It will take some time.
If the public continue like this, then the government cannot sweep anything under the carpet.
The Catamaran: What kinds of problems has the Commission experienced?
Punchihewa: Well, we still don’t have our own office. There is nowhere the public can speak with us freely. Any official or journalist who comes to the office has nowhere to park their car.
Money has been allocated and it comes from the World Bank, who said they would assist the implementation of the Act financially. But there has been a delay moving the money through state systems. For example, the Commission should have a staff of 19 but only six or seven have been appointed so far.
The Catamaran: Do you think the government is doing this deliberately, in that they have passed the law as they promised they would, but they are now trying to undermine its effectiveness?
Punchihewa: Governments want to hide information. They don’t want the public knowing everything. But to be honest, the work of the Commission has not been obstructed at all; there has been no interference. The government could throttle funding and not give us the needed facilities. But the law is the law. It cannot be abolished now. Overall I would say it is too soon to say. It is not easy to change the culture of state institutions.
The Catamaran: So, you think the government will support the Act and the Commission?
Punchihewa: I don’t think the government can do anything about it. Because the public also really like this law. We have seen plenty of evidence of that in the past three months. A large number of requests for information have been received by state institutions.
For example, requests were made about the development projects at Kalutara to the council there. The officials refused to give the information and then the people came to us. We brought the parties together and they eventually gave the information that was requested. They realised they would be penalized if they didn’t give the information. That is why the public are the ones who will make this act a success or not. If they continue like this, then the government cannot sweep anything under the carpet. Public servants will have to give in to this new culture.
The Catamaran: Do you think that some officials are working without adequate knowledge of the new Act?
Punchihewa: Yes. More briefings need to be done. Unfortunately, the Commission doesn’t have adequate facilities to carry out those briefings and government institutions are not providing enough support for the programs. That is why civil society organisations need to do as much as possible to inform the general public about their rights.