According to a survey conducted in 2016 by Data Stories and Journalism Pakistan, nearly 76 per cent of the respondents said that they had never used the right to information (RTI) laws to access data, while over 97 per cent believed that official data was not easily available in the country.
Khalid Khattak, senior reporter with The News, and founder of Data Stories, believes that the use of RTI still remains low, at least in the Punjab. “It’s a mix of reasons,” he says. “Not only are journalists unaware that laws exist which empower them to access public information, but key posts of Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioner at the Punjab Information Commission (PIC) have both been lying vacant for months.
These vacant posts have created a gap in the process of RTI, as it is the PIC which intervenes to help get information for journalists and other individuals in case of non-compliance of the public body from whom information has been sought. Still, Khattak says that prior to the posts becoming vacant, he had used the RTI numerous times successfully.
However, Khattak is a minority. Numerous journalists and reporters that I spoke to said that although they have heard of the RTI, they haven’t used it.
In Islamabad, there is the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), and one of the things they do is conduct workshops across the country to create awareness on RTI and help journalists and others to submit requests for information.
Syed Raza Ali, who is the coordinator, says that “the ratio of information sharing has gone down in Punjab.” Apart from the posts lying vacant, Raza says that numerous public bodies have not installed public information officers, something mandated by law. The PIOs are supposed to provide information requested via the RTI. Raza says that after the local bodies elections, posts were revised and new notifications were to be issued, but that never happened.
Still, via the CPDI, between 300 and 400 information requests were made during 2017, and according to Raza, there has been minimal response.
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On the face of it, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seems to have a better RTI set up in place. The commission is fully manned, and public bodies have information officers in place. However, according to Iftikhar Firdous, from The Express Tribune, all is not well there either.
“Information that benefits the department (from whom it is being gained) is readily available,” he says. “But things that should be public knowledge yet go against the sarkari mindset are difficult to retrieve.” Firdous reveals that RTIs have been submitted on things as basic as asking how much money was donor funded into government departments, and there has been no reply in over a year.
Another problem in KP is the fact that although there are people in place, the law is lacking. Issues such as the mechanism to fine PIOs who deny information to individuals still remain unresolved. At the same time, the law does not bind the government to appoint new information commissioners when the incumbent commissioners complete their tenure.
And importantly, the fact that the RTI law does not extend to the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA). “The request sent by the KP Home and Tribal Affairs department for extending the RTI law to PATA has been waiting for the President’s approval for more than two years,” Firdous reveals.
The other two provinces have completely different challenges when it comes to RTI. The Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2016 was approved in March 2017, following which the Sindh Information Commission was to be formed within 60 days, to oversee the implementation of the law. The commission has still not been formed.
“The response rate to RTI is zero,” says Ali. And the case is no better in Balochistan. Under the prevailing law in the province, the main appellate is the provincial ombudsman who has no authority to impose fines on non-compliance to RTI requests.
While the right to information is fundamental for journalists, it is equally important for other sections of society, including rights groups. Bytes for All is a digital rights and advocacy group based in Islamabad. Their experience with RTI is telling.
“67 requests, and zero replies,” says Shahzad Ahmed, the country director, of Bytes for All. “We did have one reply, but it doesn’t count, because the information provided had nothing to do with what we had asked for.” To make matters worse, in the aftermath of one of their requests, the group received a threatening email, asking them the reasons for wanting the information requests.
Across the border in India, the use of RTI by journalists is widespread. “The biggest proof of its success is that many RTI activists have been killed,” says Shivam Vij, a journalist based in Delhi. “However, the deaths have not slowed down its use at all.”
Vij says that while the bureaucracy is very opposed to RTI and does its best to not give information, the law is strong, so it works somewhat. He adds that whenever there has been an attempt to undermine RTI, activists have rallied against the move. “RTI happened through social movements,” he says.
Here in Pakistan, however, the awareness that RTI laws even exist remains its number one problem.