The citizens’ right to information has been secured in the Constitution of Pakistan which empowers them to make governments accountable. Under the Right to Information (RTI) laws citizens can ask the government about any information that they consider important and in the public interest.
Are the citizens aware of and adequately benefitting from these laws? Who can benefit from RTI laws and how many are actually using these?
On losing a contract, Jehanzeb Khan (not his real name), a government contractor in Lahore, was advised by the staff of the concerned department to seek information about the particulars of the successful bidder, his experience and track record, under the Punjab RTI law. The purpose was to challenge the award of the contract if it was against the rules. After some contemplation, though, Khan decided against it.
What stopped him from doing this was that he did not want to face the wrath of the influential officers because he did not want to be sidelined for future contracts or get his outstanding payments delayed. However, the good thing was that he came to know about the existence of these laws.
Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, former information commissioner, Punjab, says government departments are a good source for spreading awareness about RTI laws among the masses “though the pace is quite slow”. Ali informs that the Punjab Information Commission (PIC), during its three-year tenure, had trained 1,000 government officers on RTI laws and issued instructions on more than 4,000 complaints it received.
The requests accommodated by the departments and answered accordingly are in addition to these. “When there is so much activity within the government sector the word will get out to the masses,” says Ali.
He says, during the last three years a large number of teachers from educational institutions like UET, PU and GCU sought information about the appointment and promotion procedures and details of degrees, experience, education, etc, of successful candidates. Then there were civil servants who sought details of inquiry reports against them or their colleagues. A large number of complaints were regarding service matters as relevant information may help applicants pursue their cases.
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Sarmad Ali, a Lahore-based lawyer, is a regular filer of RTI requests. He believes a lot of burden on high courts can be reduced if lawyers start invoking RTI laws to get access to FIRs and supplementary statements in criminal cases as these are subject cases of many writ petitions. “Though police is reluctant to share these, a PIC decision declaring them public documents is already there.”
Similarly, he says, “documents procured through RTI requests can help lawyers strengthen their cases in civil and trial courts but they do not use these frequently.”
A recent request made by Sarmad Ali to the Principal Information Officers (PIOs) of 25 public sector universities in Punjab was about the criteria they had adopted to hire visiting faculty. All of them replied they were following the criteria set by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) but he found out that many visiting faculty members were engaged in sheer violation of rules. He has also filed a request with the Hazara University, KP, “seeking details about their sports budget and whether they had used it properly or not.”
About the general use of RTI laws, Syed Raza Ali Shah, Senior Programme Officer, Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), thinks its use is increasing gradually. He says, “the response to RTI in Balochistan, Sindh and the federal government is far from satisfactory. It is better in KP and Punjab. This is because only these two provinces have had information commissions that helped people get information.”
Under the new laws, the federal and Sindh governments are supposed to form information commissions but they have not done that. “We have filed requests with different governments but we haven’t ever received a response from Balochistan. It’s time they get rid of their archaic RTI law,” says Shah.
A boy in KP, Shah says, applied for a job and appeared in the written test but later found that the job had been advertised again. He filed an RTI request to get the results of the test and the answer sheet he had used. The concerned department refused to accommodate him but on the orders of the KP Information Commission, his demand was fulfilled and it was revealed that he had stood first in the exams. He approached the Peshawar High Court (PHC) with the documents and ultimately got that job.”
There are examples where the RTI requests facilitated by CPDI have led to the disclosure that 284 health units in Punjab were without doctors and 2,000 schools without head teachers. The request about schools was filed by Khalid Khattak, a journalist from Lahore, and also taken up by the CPDI.
The CPDI is holding dialogue with the governments of Balochistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan. “The agenda is how to come up with citizens-friendly RTI laws. Street theatres, awareness talks, seminars, community outreach programmes are also being used to create awareness about RTI laws in different parts of the country,” Shah says.
Azmat Hanif Orakzai, Chief Information Commissioner, KP is quite upbeat about the use of RTI law in the province. He says as per their database, around 10,000 citizens have filed requests since 2014, of which 7000 have been answered by the concerned departments. Of the remaining 3,000 brought to the commission, 2,500 have been disposed of by the commission while 500 are being heard.
Orakzai says a major benefit is that government departments have become cautious whereas the citizens are feeling empowered. “There have been a lot of requests about departmental budgets, expenditures, grant of permits/contracts, appointments and so on. The KP government is promoting transparency. The introduction of a law protecting whistleblowers is a proof of this.”