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RTI and citizens: Emerging trends

The process of filing information requests under the Right to Information laws should be easy and cost-effective

RTI and citizens: Emerging trends

One of the core principles of Right to Information (RTI) legislation is that the process of filing information requests should be easy and cost-effective. The logic behind this principle is to facilitate citizens in exercising their right to information.

First generation of RTI laws in Pakistan, i.e., federal Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and its replicas in Balochistan and Sindh in the shape of Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 and Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006 do not adhere to this principle.

Under the rules framed for Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and the Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005, citizens are required to submit applications on prescribed forms and deposit Rs50 for first 10 pages of the requested information in National Bank of Pakistan.

It has been seen that neither citizens nor the NBP staff know about the account head under which the fee is to be deposited. Furthermore, under all these laws, in case a request for information is denied, the complaint is to be lodged with federal or provincial ombudsman, as the case may be.

The office of ombudsman has proven to be toothless in acting on the complaints lodged by citizens and civil society groups. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that citizens have not taken fancy to using these laws as even civil society groups dedicated to working for transparency and greater flow of information from public bodies to citizens have found it extremely hard to use these laws.

In sharp contrast to the 1st generation of RTI laws, 2nd generation of RTI laws, i.e., Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 and the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 provide an easy and cost-effective process of filing information requests and for lodging complaints.

Under both these laws, information requests can be submitted on a plain paper and there is no fee for filing information requests and the first 20 pages of information are to be provided free of cost. Complaint redressal mechanisms are far more effective than those envisaged in 1st generation RTI laws. Independent and autonomous information commissions set-up under these laws are not only mandated to decide on complaints within a certain time-frame but these commission have also been empowered to impose penalties on officials who unlawfully deny or delay access to the requested information.

No wonder, we have witnessed a surge of information requests filed to provincial public bodies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.

Four distinct trends emerge when we scrutinise requests for information filed by citizens under both first and second generation RTI laws in Pakistan. First, as pointed out earlier, the dichotomy between the number of requests for information filed under first and second generation RTI laws is too pronounced to be ignored. There is no data available on the websites of federal and provincial Ombudsman about the number of complaints lodged under federal, Balochistan and Sindh freedom of information laws.

If those working in the area of transparency and right to information are to be believed, not more than 500 or 600 information requests have been filed under these laws in all these years. Whereas, according to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission web site, number of complaints lodged stands at 1784 on March 01, 2016.

Punjab Information Commission has yet to update complaint figures on its web site but according to news item published in the press on February 24, 2016, Chief Information Commissioner shared that the commission received over 1800 complaints ever since its establishment in March 2014.

This suggests that a higher number of complaints have been lodged with information commissions in relatively far less period of time when compared with the complaint lodged with federal and provincial Ombudsman. However, when seen in relationship with population of these provinces, the number of requests for information is staggeringly low which shows that both information commissions have failed to raise awareness level about right to information in their provinces.

The second trend that has clearly emerged is that public officials, apart from employing host of other tactics for not divulging the requested information, do not feel any qualms to take punitive measures against those who request information. Ever since the enactment of these laws, at least 3 teachers have faced the wrath of bureaucracy in the shape of transfers, suspensions and enquiries for seeking copies of seniority lists.

As reported in the press on March 25, 2015, district education officer (DEO) Nowshera suspended two school teachers Ijaz Ur Rahman and Mudassir Shah under West Pakistan Government Servants (Conduct) Rules 1966.According to Rahman, he was first transferred and then suspended because he had sought information about seniority list and PTC Fund from District Officer, Education Department.

Sub Divisional Education Officer (SDEO) Nowshera, Abdul Samad, said that such information requests are not responded to as requested information is displayed on notice boards of circle offices. Samad obviously did not know that even if the requested information is available in the public domain, the public body is bound under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 to guide the requester as to where the requested information could be obtained. Earlier in June 2014, Executive District Officer Vehari launched enquiry against a primary school teacher for seeking seniority list under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013.

Apart from these three teachers, On March 04, 2015, it was reported in the national press that the Punjab University found a former professor guilty of misuse of authority in an inquiry conducted after he had requested release of information under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 about faculty who continued to occupy official residences after their retirement.

The third trend pertains to the nature of requests for information being filed by citizens. According to Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, Information Commissioner, Punjab Information Commission, employees of government departments have filed information requests about their issues pertaining to transfers, promotions and enquiries.

Citizens have also filed information requests on issues surrounding recruitments and have sought certified copies of merit list. Information requests have also been filed about the maintenance of parks and water filter plans. While journalists have used these laws for public accountability and civil society groups to highlight incidents of maladministration, citizens have used these laws to solve their personal issues and for the attainment of their rights.

Fourth, both Punjab Information Commission and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission have imposed penalties though sparingly so far, on public officials who have denied citizens access to the requested information. Punjab Information Commission imposed fine equal to sixty days of the salary of District Officer, Education Department, Vehari on October 24, 2014 and also said that “he acted with malafide intentions to first delay and then obstruct access to the requested information by intimidating the complainant to withdraw the complaint filed with the commission”.

This was the first ever penalty imposed on an official in the country for not providing access to information. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission imposed the first ever penalty under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 on July 16, 2015 when it slapped a fine of Rs25000 on Registrar, Abdul Wali Khan university, Sher Alam Khan for not providing information about hiring of the staff to a citizen.

On December 19, 2015, Qazi Sajiduddin, AIG legal, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police Department got dubious distinction of being fined  twice and was asked to deposit Rs50,000 for failing to provide copies of enquiry reports to fellow colleagues. Interestingly, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission, unlike Punjab Information Commission, instructs that the fine imposed be paid to the applicant as a compensation.

Relatively low number of complaints lodged with information commissions suggests that both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission and Punjab Information Commission need to launch massive mass awareness campaigns which are the responsibility of these commissions under their respective laws.

While imposing penalty on officials for unlawfully denying or delaying access to information is a step in the right direction, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission needs to rethink the policy of compensating an applicant with the fine money. There is no precedent from other countries for such compensation and fine is collected by the government. Furthermore, such a practise is surely bound to create animosity between an applicant and an official each time an official is asked to pay fine as compensation to an applicant.

Zahid Abdullah

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