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Journalists warming up to Right to Information in Sri Lanka
30 Sep. 2018

Knowledge of how to go about acquiring public information through the Right to Information law is key to investigative journalism. Training for journalists held in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka in September 2018.

By Nalaka Gunarwadene, IMS advisor.
Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka: 16 September 2018

Journalists in Sri Lanka are increasingly using their newly won Right to Information (RTI) to research important stories such as public sector corruption, land ownership, access to state subsidies, police brutality and enforced disappearances.

Some are also collaborating with civil society groups and activists in promoting greater transparency and accountability through RTI.

A training workshop held in Anuradhapura from September 14 to 16 saw two of Sri Lanka’s most prolific journalists and users of RTI  sharing their experiences with peers drawn from across the Northern Province. The workshop, organised by the Jaffna Press Club (JPC) in partnership with International Media Support (IMS), brought together 30 journalists working in the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu. They report for various print, broadcast or web outlets in the north itself, or for media houses in Colombo.

Tharindu Jayawardena, a reporter with the Lankadeepa daily newspaper who has filed over 300 RTI applications during the past 18 months, discussed how he obtained key government information for several impactful stories through the Right to Information law. These covered illegal land grabs by the rich and powerful, cover-ups of police brutality, politicians misusing public resources, and the real facts about rehabilitating ex-combatants who fought in the civil war.

“Some of my stories involved multiple RTI applications that were filed over many months as I followed a paper trail or dug deeper,” he said. “To use RTI for journalism, we need lots of patience, persistence and the skill to analyse large volumes of information.”

Anuradhapura-based local journalist Sarath Manula Wickrama talked about how his media and civil society work has been enhanced by RTI-elicited information. Analysing such information, he found irregularities in public tenders, purchases and civil works in the North-central Province where he lives.

Non-existent irrigation reservoirs and roads

To get to the core of any issue, investigative journalists and social activists need to compare official records with reality on the ground, he emphasized. For example, he noticed how certain irrigation reservoirs and roads allegedly built and paid for with millions of rupees of public funds simply did not exist. Yet the bureaucracy had approved and made payments for such non-existing infrastructure.

The workshop was facilitated by Dr S Raguram, Head of Media Studies at Jaffna University, who will continue to mentor the workshop participants over the next few weeks as they pursue RTI-enabled reporting.

JPC and IMS will be evaluating the journalistic reports emerging from the participants and select the best media products. The journalists behind these selected media products  will receive awards to be presented at a ceremony in Jaffna in early 2019. The top three journalists will also get to visit India for short-term capacity-building training.

Background

Jaffna Press Club is an apolitical, not-for-profit organisation of media professionals working across the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It is governed by a board of office bearers elected by journalist members and is committed to safeguarding media freedoms and promoting greater media professionalism: https://www.facebook.com/JaffnaPressClubOfficial/.

International Media Support is a non-profit organisation working to support local media in countries affected by armed conflict, authoritarian rule and political transition. Across four continents, IMS supports the production of good journalism and works to ensure safe media environments with sound laws for journalists: https://www.mediasupport.org/


Keywords: AsiaSri Lanka