Asif Munawar is a Christian living in Jhang District in Punjab. He is also an award-winning citizen; he won the Right to Information Champion Award organised by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiative (CPDI) for his constructive use of the Right to Information Act to develop awareness among his community.
“I often avail data from government departments about the minorities’ quota in the hiring of staff,” says Munawar. “Then I inform my community about the vacant reserved seats for minorities and help them in availing those jobs.”
To file a request under the Right to Information (RTI) law, any citizen of Pakistan can file a written request to a designated official of a public body via email, fax or post. The citizen is not bound to disclose the purpose of their request but the public body is bound to provide the requested information within 14 working days. In cases where no response is received, the citizen can file a complaint to the respective Information Commission.
Lack of awareness among citizens and poor implementation of the Right To Information laws keep the public from exercising their right to hold government departments accountable
Member of Punjab Assembly Uzma Bukhari too regularly makes use of the RTI law. “I regularly file Right to Information requests but never receive any information.” Bukhari has filed requests regarding the expenses of the Chief Minister (CM) House and also filed a request regarding the expenses incurred on the use of a helicopter by the CM. No information was shared with her.
The MPA filed an adjournment motion on June 25, 2019 in the Punjab Assembly to discuss the poor implementation of the RTI law in Punjab but she claims it was dismissed by the speaker of the assembly “due to my political affiliation.” Those who claimed they would ensure transparency in governmental affairs through the RTI laws are now hiding information, she says, not only from the general public but also from parliamentarians.
At the national level, the Parliament passed the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 to replace the Right to Information Ordinance 2002 which was passed under the Musharraf regime. It applies to all ministries and departments operating at the federal level. The second-generation RTI law was spurred by the PTI-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government passing the KP Right to Information Act 2013.
As part of the 18th Amendment, Article 19-A was added to the Constitution which states that “every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.” Under the law, citizens can avail documents and information from any public body or government department. Mohammed Azam, Chief Information Commissioner of the Federal Information Commission, says that normally the public requests information regarding construction works in their area, and merit lists of jobs announced in any department. Social activists also use this law to avail data related to public interest, like budget allocation and utilisation in different sectors of life.
Despite the legislation, however, public bodies are still reluctant to share information. The government too has shown scant interest in empowering the individual commissions.
The Sindh Information Commission and the Federal Information Commission were finally notified last year but remain perfunctory. Although, the CM Sindh approved a 55 million rupee grant in the previous financial year for the Sindh Information Commission, sources say not a single penny was spent. The federal government has also allocated 70 million rupees for the Federal Information Commission in the fiscal year of 2019-2020. The commission, however, has neither its own office nor proper staff. “We have been allocated a single room at the Information Services Academy where I and two other commissioners sit,” says Chief Commissioner Azam. “We don’t have a supporting staff or facilities.”
The Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Firdous Ashiq Awan, says that the previous federal government only passed the RTI law but it was the PTI government which notified the Pakistan Information Commission within its first 100 days of government, showing its commitment to this law.
But Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, former Information Commissioner at the Punjab Information Commission (PIC), says that whereas the political leadership that facilitated the KP Information Commission has made the legislation in Punjab, it has not taken any steps for its implementation. “We got an office for the PIC after a continuous struggle for one year,” he adds. A lack of manpower and a gap in the appointment of the information commissioners has affected the performance of the PIC, he adds.
On the ground, citizens feel the efficiency of the KP-RTI has also diminished.
Mohammad Naeem, a resident of Mardan, is not satisfied with the performance of KP’s Right to Information Commission. According to the official website of the KP-RTI Commission, 95 percent of the total (5,885) complaints received by the commission are resolved. Yet Naeem claims the KP-RTI is now limited to issuing notices only.
“I received information from Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan after 16 months of my application. Similarly, I recently requested the university for some other information but four months have passed. Neither the university nor the KP-RTI Commission has issued any summons to provide the information.”
This was not always the situation with the KP Information Commission. A few years ago, Naeem had obtained data about the total number of sanitary workers in Tehsil Municipal Administration Mardan, along with their attendance sheet. The data revealed that almost 60 percent of sanitary workers were either not performing their duties or that they were working in affluent residences and were receiving salaries from the government department. “I shared this information on social media and with journalists. As a result, more than 300 ghost employees were terminated from their job,” he says.
IMPLEMENTATION OF LAW
Nadeem Umer, a journalist based in Rawalpindi, has been using the RTI law for two years now. Following up an RTI complaint in Punjab is difficult, he says; the commission does not have any proper complaint management system. The complainant has to call each time to find out the status of his complaint. Taking advantage of an inept Punjab Information Commission, the public bodies do not take information requests seriously.
In fact, exercising Section 26 (3) of the KP-RTI Act 2013, the KP-RTI commission imposed a fine of up to 20,000 rupees on 17 public bodies including three press clubs — the Abbottabad Press Club, the Peshawar Press Club and the Mardan Press Club — for denying the requested information to a citizen.
Sajjad Ali, an RTI activist based in Peshawar, says that public information officers use delaying tactics in providing information, and most of the citizens give up on following their cases. At times when the information is finally provided, it is either irrelevant or incomplete, in which case the complainant has to contact the commission again.
When Umer filed an information request at the Anti-Corruption Department, Rawalpindi more than a year ago, the request was denied stating that the Anti-Corruption Department is not bound to disclose information under the law. He then filed the complaint to the Punjab Information Commission but is yet to receive a response.
According to the annual report 2017-18 of the Punjab Assembly, sometimes applicants ask for information that comprises thousands of pages. The public information officers say that often the information is not accessible to them and they have to retrieve data from the concerned quarters. And then there is the matter of verifying it.
In case a public information officer refuses or delays in providing information, the RTI law also gives citizens the right to appeal. Section 15 of The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 states: “the Commission may, after providing sufficient opportunity of defence to the public information officer, direct the public information officer to pay [a] fine not exceeding two days’ salary for each day of delay or to pay [a] fine which may extend to 50,000 rupees.”
In fact, exercising Section 26 (3) of the KP-RTI Act 2013, the KP-RTI commission imposed a fine of up to 20,000 rupees on 17 public bodies including three press clubs — the Abbottabad Press Club, the Peshawar Press Club and the Mardan Press Club — for denying the requested information to a citizen. The Punjab Information Commission also imposed a fine of 50,000 rupees on three officers of the Irrigation Department Lahore and also fined the Deputy Commissioner Rawalpindi 10,000 rupees for not providing an inquiry report requested under the RTI act by this correspondent.
An official of the Punjab Information Commission says show cause notices were issued on June 25, 2019 to more than 250 officials of different departments for delaying or denying the provision of information to citizens, while 22 of them were fined 10,000 rupees each. But the decision to impose fines was later recalled due to their excuses and their promises that they would provide the information.
The executive director of Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO), a non-governmental organisation, Syed Kausar Abbas says, “To implement the law in its true spirit so that it can empower citizens, ensure transparency and improve public services by facilitating public participation and oversight, it is imperative to make government departments responsive towards the information requests made under the law.”
The Sindh Information Commission and the Federal Information Commission were finally notified last year but remain perfunctory. Although, the CM Sindh approved a 55 million rupee grant in the previous financial year for the Sindh Information Commission, sources say not a single penny was spent.
For better implementation, Ahmed says, it is necessary to train bureaucrats to accept that information is a right of the citizens. The appointment of capable public information officers can also play an important role in its implementation. He says citizens will use the law only when they know that their requests or complaints will be dealt with as per law. Bureaucracy is taught to not share any information with the public, so this behaviour will take time to change, he adds.
Mahboob Qadir Shah, the Chief Information Commissioner at the Punjab Information Commission, claims that the poor performance of the commission is due to the lack of manpower. However, the data availed through RTI for this story shows that the Punjab Information Commission has 24 employees, including information commissioners and support staff. Data availed through RTI shows that the commission has received 1,026 complaints during 2018, out of which only 750 were resolved. In contrast, the Chief Information Commissioner of PIC claims that the commission received 1,600 complaints and only five of them are pending.
SSDO conducted a study in which they sent 194 requests for information to four selected district departments — police, health, education and district administration — in 36 districts of Punjab to gauge the effectiveness of the RTI commission in Punjab and the implementation of the law. Their findings establish that the response from government departments is poor. Out of 194 total requests made, only 36 requests received a response and, in only 20 cases, the response was received within 14 days. The remaining 16 responses were received after filing a complaint in the PIC. Seventeen districts did not respond at all to any of the information requests.
The overall response rate towards the requests filed by the SSDO research team remained as low as 18 percent whereas, within 14 days of the given timeline, only 10 percent of requests were answered.
Ahmed Bilal, president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), says that the RTI laws are arguably the best tool to ensure transparency in the country, but unfortunately the ratio of RTI law users is very low. People either do not have any knowledge about it or they do not use it. Comparatively, the old Freedom of Information Act 2002 was a weak law, but using it, PILDAT was still successful in obtaining data regarding the attendance of National Assembly members. If you have the will to get information, these laws give you the right to avail them, he says.
“I believe that the problem is not its implementation, but in practicing of this law by the public,” Bilal maintains.
Waqas Naeem, programme manager at Media Matters for Democracy, a not-for-profit organisation for freedom of information, agrees that the RTI law is the best tool for transparency in cases where public money is involved. However, the commissions should be empowered, facilitated and strengthened to change the culture of secrecy among bureaucracy. He urges civil society organisations, journalists and human rights defenders to make the masses aware of the use of the law and its impact on governance and transparency.
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 13th, 2019