July 05, 2017 (LBO) – Sri Lanka’s Press Council Law, which is not consistent with the Right to Information (RTI) Act, can hinder the media from publishing information obtained through RTI, a research report said.
The report, a collaboration between Verité Research and Democracy Reporting International, highlights for instance that obtaining information pertaining to cabinet decisions is permissible under the RTI Act.
Section 16 of the Press Council Law, however, contains a series of prohibitions on publication including prohibitions on documents sent to ministers, cabinet decisions and proposals that are under consideration by ministries.
“The RTI Act on the other hand contains no restrictions on the publication of information received pursuant to RTI requests,” the report said.
“The prohibitions on publication outlined in Press Council Law could disincentivise the media from publishing information corresponding to these matters, thus frustrating the purpose of the RTI Act.”
The report calls on the government to repeal section 16 of the Press Council Law which is necessary to prevent undue restriction on the use of information obtained through the RTI Act in the public domain.
“At least two weeks prior to a Bill being tabled in Cabinet for its approval, the draft Bill should be disclosed to the public on the Ministry’s website,” the report further recommended.
“A Bill should not be tabled for Cabinet’s approval unless at least one public consultation on the Bill has taken place.”
Contrary to these recommendations, journalists say the Information Department has suddenly stopped releasing cabinet papers to the media even after they received approval from the cabinet.
The surprising move came a month after President Maithripala Sirisena informed all ministries that cabinet decisions and memoranda not falling within certain categories under the RTI should be made available even to the public.
Information Department Director General Ranga Kalansooriya, who is behind this move, has said that this directive came from Cabinet Secretary.
Cabinet Secretary Sumith Abeysinghe however has said that he did not issue any directive, but it was up to the relevant ministry to decide, Sunday Times reported.
The RTI Act however creates obligations on public authorities to proactively disclose information to the public even without a formal request.
The right to information is one of the four areas to which member states must commit in order to participate in the Open Government Partnership where Sri Lanka is a member.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that the right to freedom of expression includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information.
Freedom of information implies that public bodies publish and disseminate widely documents of significant public interest which includes cabinet decisions.
Download full report here.