THE Right of Access to Information Bill, 2017, has finally become law. As it passed through the different stages required, civil society groups and the media decried it as a weak law that did not meet certain standards pertaining to right-to-information legislation. This made sense. Even so, these groups need to be mindful that harping along the same lines during its implementation stage will serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The RAI law of 2017 is definitely better than the Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002 that it has replaced. It contains strong provisions pertaining to the proactive disclosure of information, indexation and computerisation of records, the establishment of an independent, autonomous information commission, and, broadening the scope of the definition of public body, it brings NGOs within the purview of the law.

In other words, apart from federal public bodies, NGOs will also have to ensure information is available about allocated and utilised budgets, salaries, perks and privileges, etc. Further, the functions and activities performed by public bodies are not only to be shared through websites, but also made available on demand.

This law has great potential to ensure transparent functioning.

This law has great potential to ensure the transparent functioning of NGOs, federal ministries and attached departments. If it fails, the reason will not be because it is weaker law than RTI laws in KP, Punjab and Sindh. These laws have also been rendered ineffective, especially in Punjab and Sindh. Civil society and media groups will have to pre-empt the tactics employed by provincial governments with the aid of the bureaucracy that render provincial RTI laws ineffective, since similar tactics will be employed when the RAI law enters the implementation phase.

Like charity, transparency should also begin at home. Senator Farhatullah Babar did a great service to the cause of transparency when he brought NGOs within the purview of this law. This provides an opportunity to civil society groups to lead by example.

In order to fulfil legal requirements and set an example for federal ministries and attached departments, NGOs should designate public information officers to proactively disclose information regarding the categories listed in Section 5 through their websites and provide the information requested. This will not only strengthen the hand of civil society groups in demanding greater transparency from the government, but the functioning of NGOs will also become more open. In fact, journalists should identify sets of questions and submit information requests to both NGOs and federal public bodies under the RAI Act 2017, comparing how the two are faring.

The federal budget for financial year 2018-19 is going to be unique in that the government will, for the first time, be legally bound to commit resources to ensuring the transparent functioning of federal public bodies as required under the RAI law. However, the fact that the Punjab Information Commission has been dysfunctional since April and the fact that Sindh has failed to establish an information commission within the period specified in its RTI law demonstrates that there’s many a slip betwixt cup and lip.

Currently, the federal government is engaged in establishing a multi-stakeholders’ forum, in consultation with civil society groups, under the Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiative. One of the themes pertains to access to information. This dialogue offers great opportunity to civil society and media groups to obtain specific commitments from the government.

It is important that civil society groups and media organisations are able to make the government make a commitment under the OGP plan being developed. This involves appointing a chief information commissioner and two information commissioners with impeccable credentials for the Pakistan Infor­mation Commission at the earliest, or within six months after the notification of this law.

The chief information commissioner and the information commissioners will guide the government regarding budgetary needs for setting up an independent and autonomous information commission. The functions of this body include, but are not limited to, the disposal of complaints, ensuring the proactive disclosure of information by public bodies, creating awareness about rights of citizens under the RAI Act, and imparting training to public officials about their roles and responsibilities. Further, the federal government can be advised about the funds required by its ministries for the indexation, computerisation and maintenance of public records.

In short, the priority should be the implementation of the law. This will depend on the allocation of the requisite funds for the information commission, which should be the single focus of attention for civil society groups and journalists.

The writer is an author and rights activist.

Twitter: @XahidAbdullah

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2017


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