Official salary details must be released in the public interest under the RTI Act: Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal has affirmed a decision by the Right to Information Commission (RTIC) directing Litro Gas Lanka Limited and Litro Gas Terminal Lanka (Private) Limited to release details of the monthly salaries and allowances of top management, including its chairman, managing director, finance director, and others.

This also includes information on the amount of loans given to each, the amount of loans to be paid back, and relevant interest on the same (Litro Gas Lanka Limited and Litro Gas Terminal Lanka Private Ltd v W.K.S. Karunaratne and the Right to Information Commission, CA judgment of 12.02.2024).

Dismissing the appeal filed by Litro Gas with costs, Justice D.M. Samarakoon held that pleading commercial interests, trade secrets, and the competitive position of a third party to deny the information exhibited a ‘lack of appreciation of the true nature of this exception.’ A further objection based on privacy concerns was also dismissed.

The RTIC had ordered the information to be released ‘in the public interest,’ noting Mr. Karunaratne’s submission that the salaries and allowances in question had been ‘immensely increased’ in the backdrop of the country’s financial crisis. An objection taken by Litro that it was not covered by the RTI Act had been dismissed.

The Court affirmed that both entities are public authorities; the State owns 99.7% shares of SL Insurance Corporation (SLIC), and SLIC holds 99.3% of LGLL and 100% of Litro Gas Terminal Lanka Private Ltd. Accordingly, there is ‘no doubt’ that both are companies incorporated under the Companies Act in which the State has a ‘controlling interest,’ Justice Samarakoon held.

The Court pointed out that though details of salaries may be personal information, the public interest override and public funds (qua Treasury) operate as an overriding factor. The ‘invasion of privacy’ was ‘warranted’ while the relevant section on privacy in the Indian RTI Act is wider in scope, with citizens having a greater ‘right to know’ under the Sri Lankan RTI Act.

Reiterating that an appropriate balance between privacy and the larger public interest must be struck with citizens being given the right to ‘surveil’ the State by RTI amidst tracing the twenty-year-old history of bringing RTI into Sri Lankan law, the Court, in a 51-page judgment, quoted the warning that “the idea is that transparency holds power to account because the most dangerous people in society can be rulers…”

Meanwhile, responding to the argument of Litro Gas that Mr. Karunaratne had a ‘malicious’ motive in filing the information request, Justice Samarakoon linked the constitutional right to information (Article 14A) to the implied recognition of the right to life by the Supreme Court.

Pointing to the express constitutional recognition of the right to freedom of thought and conscience (Article 10) as well, he noted that a citizen has the ‘right to live’ including with ‘malicious intentions’ and emphasized that ascertaining the ‘intention of the citizen’ is not ‘material’ under the RTI Act.

Source: Sunday times

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