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Men stand outside the RTIC office in Peshawar, KP. — Photo by author
Men stand outside the RTIC office in Peshawar, KP. — Photo by author

In February 2015, Peshawar journalist Aziz Buneri submitted a request to the KP's Right to Information Commission (RTIC) to access information on budget expenditure in Rescue 1122.

Under the Right to Information Act (RTI) Act, which was passed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly in October 2013 to better facilitate citizens’ access to public documents and records, Buneri should have received the relevant data within 20 days of submitting his request. The RTIC was set up under the much-acclaimed RTI Act.

Right to Information Commission in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. — Photo by author Right to Information Commission in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. — Photo by author

Buneri received a response after six months but, much to his dismay, it was both irrelevant and misleading. "I received information on budget allocation instead of the budget spent by Rescue 1122."

Buneri believes that the process of accessing information held by government departments is marred by inefficient procedures, and is doomed to failure.

“The law has unfairly raised the public’s hopes making us feel we can access information on the government’s activities, and that this process is a legal right under the Constitution,” he says. “But that isn’t the case.”

A faulty process

The RTI commission is obligated to respond to media and public requests within 20 working days after an application is submitted.

But according to experts who helped draft it, the law has been impeding access to information held by working government departments, rather than facilitating it

This, they say, is mainly due to the lack of clearly outlined procedures as well as tactics employed by bureaucrats to hide and obscure data.

Public Information Officers (PIOs) are appointed across government departments in KP to handle requests, but the process remains faulty at best.

Every citizen’s constitutional right

Gathering timely and accurate information from the RTI commission, however, is not an obstacle restricted to journalists. Applicants from other professions face similar problems when contacting government officials and departments.

Buneri explains that only KP’s information department has successfully implemented the proactive disclosure of the law (the use of modern technology to inform citizens about what the government does).

“The KP government should ensure that all government departments proactively disclose information, as per the spirit of the law,” he insists.

Muhammad Anwar, the executive director at Centre for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA), echoes Buneri’s sentiment. According to him, accessing information held by public bodies is every citizen’s constitutional right, and therefore the commission should put in greater effort towards handling public requests.

“The KP government can issue standing orders to all government departments to ensure implementation of the law,” he suggests.

'A culture of secrecy'

The Commission has received 935 complaints from applicants this year, according to the RTIC website. Out of these, 275 remain unresolved.

Compared to this year’s number, in 2014, the commission received only 290 complaints. This shows a marked increase in government officials blocking access to information. From the complaints received last year, only five are pending.

RTIC’s Chief Information Commissioner, Sahibzada Muhammad Khalid, believes that the commission’s inefficiency is largely due to a “culture of secrecy”.

“It will take time to change the culture among government bureaucrats,” he believes.

The Official Secrets Act, which was introduced in 1923, has been enforced for almost a century and has resulted in normalising secrecy.

But there are other ways the commission can redress the situation, Khalid says.

"For example, when a PIO deliberately supplies incorrect information to an applicant, he can be reported for misconduct."

“Action can be initiated against him by the competent authority under the relevant law,” shares Abdul Matin, an Information Commissioner (IC), at RTIC.

Awami National Party (ANP) leader Jafar Shah claims some journalists even face threats from officials when they file applications.

"The RTI came into existence with great hype but it is not as effective as we expected. Making a law is easy but implementation is necessary. The PTI-led government does not seem serious about implementation; they need to think about it before passing an act."

A work in progress

Khalid reiterates the RTIC's commitment to change. He explains that they do not have the authority to take action against officials or departments which provide wrong information in response to public queries.

"But we are framing rules and introducing amendments that will help curb the aforementioned culture of secrecy."

The RTIC is also accused of lacking business procedures — a matter that it takes very seriously. “The rules of business are in their final stages. We will share them with the government soon,” the CIC adds.

He also promises that the commission would be as transparent as possible. “The commission is not bound to share its rules with the public, but if civil society is interested, then we will post these rules on our website,” he promises.

Till date, the RTI Commission has imposed a Rs25,000 fine each, in principle, on two officials, Registrar of Khan Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan and the Chief Executive of Khalifa Gul Nawaz in Bannu after the law came into existence. They also issued show-cause notices to some officials for delaying information to applicants in their departments.

But this is merely a work in progress as majority of the officials dodge information-sharing, and do not fear legal or disciplinary consequences, as evidenced by the high-complaint rate.

"We are aware of the problem but don't have any real mechanism in place to collect fines from those who violate the law, due to a lack of rules," says RTIC Secretary Mushtaq Ahmad.

— The author is a Peshawar-based journalist, who works as a crime reporter for The Frontier Post.

Comments (19) Closed

PakPower Dec 15, 2015 01:21pm

This is a good initiative but like Mr. Khalid states it will take time to solidify. The "culture of secrecy" is too strong in the subcontinent.

haris Dec 15, 2015 02:21pm

Initiative has been taken but it needs time and efforts from all corners to improve the overall system. Remember Corruption is not just one thing enwrapped in our Public offices, Inefficiency is another virus affecting the functional state of our state departments. Corruption could be contained in short time but eradication of Inefficiency takes time and constant efforts from all of us.

fahadjs Dec 15, 2015 02:24pm

"Mr. Awami National Party (ANP) leader Jafar Shah claims some journalists even face threats from officials when they file applications."

It is the culture cultivated in the past. Now being blamed on the ones who are trying to fix it.

riyyan Dec 15, 2015 02:47pm

There's nothing wrong with the law as it exists in EU countries as well. The issue is with execution as with any other law in Pakistan! One would have expected from PTI to clearly outline the steps and timescales once an application has been submitted under this law. We don't expect anything less from a party of change!

Imran Ahmed Dec 15, 2015 03:07pm

The courts should also take cognizance of written complaints posted to it against PIO or PR heads or Protocol Officers who fail to implement the RTI in letter and spirit by awarding custodial sentences to those officers found to be deliberately obstructive, instructing non cooperation or simply incompetent. An odd dozen Grade 18 and above bureaucrats spending time in public jails would have a salutary effect on departmental response efficiency.

Shahid Dec 15, 2015 03:07pm

I think a promise of providing the required info within 20 days will be very difficult to implement. As our data is more on paper than in computer, officials should be given at least one month for this.

Salma Shahid Dec 15, 2015 03:11pm

Here in Scandinavia, the most refined society, you can't be given every type of information withing 20 days. 100 % of the data here is in computers but even then you need manpower to extract or even mix the data sometimes. So how would it be possible for KPK to live up to 20 day promise. Make it 45 days at least.

Shaukat Ali Khan Dec 15, 2015 03:24pm

PTI's hollow sloganeering and blaming.

Zeeshan Dec 15, 2015 03:29pm

It will take time to remove 60 years worth of filth. But the important thing is the direction has been set right.

amjad Dec 15, 2015 05:18pm

Very well written. What I believe and understand , there is no problem in Law but in the departments those are not providing the correct information in time. Now it is the duty of Govt to force the department to provide info.

Truth Sayer Dec 15, 2015 06:55pm

We shuld all be happy that a system like that has been created n it exists.

Improvements r needed no doubt in that but to criticize the whole Gov n the RTI law for this is not fair.

This is the 1st time measure in Pakistan n we shuld be proud of such institution makings. We all need to work together to improve our institutions

Ahmad Dec 15, 2015 08:00pm

We need computers in offices to have all paper work on them.

PARDESI Dec 15, 2015 08:48pm

Change is first resisted,then ridiculed and then accepted.

Nadeem Dec 15, 2015 11:45pm

@Shaukat Ali Khan Not even a slogan from Punjab or any other province about this type of law. They are all busy saving their corrupt faces currently..

Canada Dec 16, 2015 12:42am

Under the Right to Information Act (RTI) Act, which was passed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly in October 2013 to BETTER FACILITATE citizens’ access to public documents and records,

Which begs the questions, does better facilitate mean instantaneous all the time for any data? Secondly do other provinces even have a right to info act?

Tufal Dec 16, 2015 04:59am

Change in culture takes time . At least give them the credit for initiating it and laying down the framework . It shows that PTI is heading in the right direction , unlike ANP and the rest ...

YYZ Dec 16, 2015 06:47am

lol at the guy from ANP criticizing this law, when they are perhaps the biggest reason this culture of secrecy exists. Ran the entire province into the ground.

Shakil Ahmed Khan Dec 16, 2015 06:56am

Yes rest of Pakistan this information is available at days notice? They will not complain about anything in Sindh, Punjab, Federal, Balochistan but they find each and every ill in KPK! :)

KPK has set the examples it surely they need more improvements. But i guess right of information should be allowed to requested directly from the concerned departments instead of going through the loop of right to information, this will cut the time and correct information be served.

Patience Dec 16, 2015 09:13am

Why focus on KP only? Didn't the Punjab government enact a similar law? I'm pretty sure their implementation is even more rudimentary because there is no website where you can monitor requests.