Access to information is a basic right of citizens of a state which they can exercise at will. The citizens who do not have access to information available with government departments and institutions cannot play a role in the progress of their country. They cannot question the unjust use of public funds, check corruption and make their rulers accountable for the lack of transparency in their working.
No doubt states all over the globe have a tendency to hide information on myriad grounds. Sometimes they say releasing it would compromise the security of the country, lead to public disorder and even result in serious harm to individuals or certain groups. The reasons can be many but the objective to a great extent is the same — to keep citizens out of the affairs of the state.
However, over the years, there has been a widespread realisation regarding the need for taking people on board and sharing important information with them more often. The underdeveloped countries dependent on foreign aid and funding are under severe pressure to come up with effective information sharing mechanisms and go for proactive disclosure of information. The purpose simply is to empower people and give them a legal right to seek important information from the government and make it accountable.
Pakistan is one such country which has experimented a lot with right to information laws over the last one and a half decades. The Freedom of Information Ordinance has been there at the federal level since 2002. Two replicas of this law were enacted by Balochistan and Sindh without much change in 2005 and 2006 respectively. These laws can be called first generation laws which are quite weak and have many loopholes. For example, the implementation mechanisms are weak, there are no punishments for violators, information can be denied on a large number of pretexts, exemptions and exceptions are abundant and the appellate authorities are not empowered in true sense of the word. There are demands from different quarters to revise these laws and make them effective.
On the other hand, Punjab and KPK have shown great progress in this regard, may be due to their rivalry and the ongoing race between them in delivering to the people of their provinces. KPK and Punjab adopted RTI laws in 2013 which were ranked the 3rd best and the 18th best in the world respectively.
Against this backdrop, this write-up tries to look into the use of these laws and determine whether they are being implemented in their true spirit or face the fate of most other laws of the land.
Zahid Abdullah, Programme Manager RTI at Center for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), says the federal and Balochistan and Sindh laws do not follow the principle of maximum disclosure. Ideally, only a limited type of information shall be exempted from disclosure for genuine reason and the rest shall be declared public.
He says on the other hand, both these KPK and Punjab laws contain a narrowly and clearly drawn list of exempted information and the rest of the information is declared public information. Furthermore, both these laws have harm test and specifically mention that even if the requested information belongs to categories of exempted information, it will be provided if the public interest outweighs the harm. There are independent information commissions which decide whether the information withheld by the government shall be released or not.
Under rules framed for FOI Ordinance 2002 and Balochistan FOI Act 2005 information requests can only be submitted after depositing Rs50 in National Bank of Pakistan which covers first 10 pages of information. Rs5 are charged for each extra page.
But there is no fee for filing information request and for the first 20 pages of the requested information. However, Rs5 will be charged for every extra page and the applicant will have to bear the postal cost according to Schedule of Fees introduced by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission. In Punjab, Rs2 will be charged for every extra copy and applicant will not have to bear postal cost, according to the Schedule of Costs introduced by Punjab Information Commission.
These federal and Balochistan and Sindh laws allow 21 working days to public bodies for providing access to the requested information. There is no provision for expediting the process of providing the requested information if it pertains to life or liberty of a person. In KPK law, the requested information has to be provided within 10 working days whereas in the Punjab law the requested information has to be provided within 14 working days. However, both laws specifically mention that if the requested information pertains to the life or liberty of a person, it will be provided within 2 working days.
There is no need to furnish any kind of affidavit while lodging complaints with the commission. Furthermore, the commissions are bound to take decisions on complaints within 60 days. A fine of Rs250 per each day of the delay in providing information can be imposed under KPK law which can go up to Rs25000. Under the Punjab law, two days of salary can be deducted for each day of the delay or fine up to Rs 50000 can be imposed.
The good news is that people in KPK and Punjab have started filing requests under these laws and being accommodated as well. In case they do not get the desired information they approach the provincial information commissions for directions to the reluctant departments. But one major issue is that people lack awareness about these laws and hardly invoke them.
Abdullah Malik, President Civil Society Network, says he filed an information request with Punjab Information Commission asking them about the total expenditures on newspaper and TV ads featuring Punjab CM. The answer he received was that they did not have a break-up of the amount as there was a bloc allocation for this purpose. He also applied to the home department, asking for a copy of Model Town incident inquiry report. Malik says his request was turned down so he wanted to approach the Punjab Information Commission but did not know where it was located.
Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, Punjab Information Commissioner, tells TNS that it is true that the commission does not have a proper office and need staff. But the good thing, he says, is that the required budget has been released and they have bought a building for office. Right now the commission members are working from home and processing the complaints.
Ali shares it with TNS that the commission has received around 800 complaints against government departments refusing to give the required information to applicants. “We have decided more than 50 per cent complaints and in almost all the cases the decisions have been in the complainants’ favour,” he adds.
He says around 300 officers have been trained in Punjab and they will soon be taking charge as information officers in their respective departments.
Ali says so far the NGOs, government employees and journalists are the ones who are filing most of the requests. The NGOs focus on issues and need important data related to development sector and budgetary spending etc, government employees are interested in having access to seniority lists etc and journalists require supporting data for their investigative stories.
Ali says the general public must invoke these laws more often and become part of the country’s journey to progress. They will not be discouraged. A proof of this, he says, is that only one order of the Punjab Information Commission which was about asset declaration was challenged in the court. Only two orders seeking details on expenditures of Governor’s House and CM House in Punjab are awaiting execution while many others have been honoured, he adds.