On February 04, 2017 Sri Lanka became the country with the one of the best Right to Information Act. The epitome of a persistent struggle that extended over 18 years shouldered mainly by professionals and activists of media and legal fields.
Yet, it is still questionable whether citizens from all corners felt the importance of such a law. Amidst all this drama, a unique incident reported from Batticaloa where thirteen brave women marched their way to find the information they longed for. They walked up to five authorities seeking information for their loved ones who went missing during the internal conflict. On February 03, from dawn to dusk these daring women walked the dusty roads in Jaffna, Batticaloa, Vavuniya towns and to several police stationsunder the scorching sun tirelessly waiting to meet the relevant authorities.
They questioned the law enforcement agencies on the remains of the complaints they made at the time their family members went missing. They demanded the police to give them evidence on the whereabouts of their missing family members or at least let them know whether they are still alive. Thousand odd questions from these women could have definitely given a shock to the public servants.
They searched information in the Jaffna District Secretariat, regional offices of the Human Rights Commission, Batticaloa DIG Office, Batticaloa prison and several other police stations.
The information officer was absent in the Jaffna District Secretariat. According to the Right to Information Act section 05 subsection 23 (1) (a), every public service department (Public Authority) must appoint an Information Officer with in three months of enactment. At the time these women went searching for information, six months had passed.
According to the Act, the head of the institute or the second in command can accept information requests and provide information as the alternative solution in the absence of an Information Officer. Despite this provision the Jaffna District Secretary, being the head of the institute, had been reluctant to accept request made by these women. On accepting the public requests, the Act clearly states the institute must issue a receipt as the acknowledgement. Instead of a receipt these women were told to return in three days to inquire about the progress.
“We still have not received any information and the three days they mentioned passed weeks ago,” they said.
Their experience at the Human Rights Commission’s regional office in Batticaloa had been different. Despite the fact that the office did not have an Information Officer, the Human Rights Commission welcomed the requests of the women and were responsible enough to issue photo copies of their request letters signed. “We respect their understanding,” they said. The disappointment came later. The head office of Human Rights Commission based in Colombo has instructed the Batticaloa officers to direct the information to Colombo as the Information Officers are appointed there. Even at the time this article goes to print the relevant information these women requested are not issued.
The other instance a debacle these women faced was at the Sri Lanka Police Deputy Inspector General’s Office in Batticaloa. As they reached the office three Police officers stopped them at the entrance and questioned what their inquiry is about. The women spoke in Tamil, as they decided to speak only in their mother tongue. Officers had to search for another Police officer who understood Tamil and had been quite stressful for them. Eventually it appeared that these Police Officers had no idea about a Right Information Act existing!
The officers has told two of the women to meet a senior Police officer. These brave women, very humbly but firmly refused saying this is a collective effort. Then the senior Police officer came down to meet the all women team. Despite his lack of knowledge in Tamil he patiently listened to the request of these women. The communication continued to happen through interpreters. The women even explained the content of the Right to Information Act that was written in English. With great patience the women informed the senior Police officer that they came to meet the Information Officer. The question still remains. Did these Police Officers understand that these women reached their office searching for information based on their rights empowered through the RTI Act? Even the senior Police officer did not know how to respond to the request.
“Two of you can come and meet the DIG,” replied the Police Officer.
The request was decently rejected by the women.
“Alright then. You all can meet the DIG,” said the Police officer who got totally lost directions in this case.
These women managed to reverse the common norms of power and bureaucracy in their soft and subtle ways. In usual practice the authority direct and the common person surrender. The vice versa happened. The women were successful in creating a conducive environment without triggering any agitation. There were no threats from either sides.
As they met the DIG, their request was accepted, receipt in Tamil was issued, and photocopies were taken. And still the communications were through interpreters.
Despite the fact that acceptance of requests of these women happened, the question is whether the Police followed the protocol stated in the Act.
On February 16 Police officers started visiting houses of these women to inquire about the complaint! The women asked for information and there were no complaints!
Does this mean the Police were misinformed about the Right to Information Act and how to react? Is this is a problem with disseminating right knowledge to the ground level officers from the Police Headquarters?
“But the Police acted with respect to our inquiry and were concerned,” women said.
The Prison Department in Batticaloa has refused to accept their request. As of to date the Prison Department has one Information officer who again is based in Colombo. For requests coming from rural areas such as Batticaloa the Department only has a complicated process operating from a distance.
Clearly many weeks are passed beyond the deadlines stipulated by the authorities to issue information to these women. Surprisingly these women still remain patient.
On one side this story depicts the attempt of victims achieve justice for their loved ones went missing. On the other hand it also shows the real situation how the RTI Act operate at the grass root level.
For these women, after years of struggle over blood , tears and toil, the RTI Act may be the strongest tool found to seek justice in a country where the right to live is not even cleared stated in the brief paragraph of the country’s constitution that set up conditions for fundamental rights.
These thirteen women are still waiting. They are awake all times to see a positive action to happen and so are we. And so should be the civil society. The awakening rising from pain, anger and injustice never dies.
By Radika Gunaratna
Attorney At Law, Human Rights and RTI Activist