Steps Toward RTI in Pakistan Provinces Considered Inadequate

19 July 2013

(The following article was prepared by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) and summarizes a longer report.)

Rhetoric aside, the PML-N (the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz) and PTI (the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) are awkwardly alike in denying the public the right to information as their provincial governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have framed Right to Information (RTI) laws that will change nothing on ground.

While the provincial governments have taken some small steps, the federal government has done nothing visible to public eye although Information Ministry claims to have drafted an RTI law that is being tightly guarded like Abbottabad Commission report.

Background discussions with the stakeholders and the officials engaged in the exercise indicate that work on Punjab’s draft law has been halted over the differences on appellant body.

Out of the five-member body assigned to finalise the draft, majority voted for setting up a powerful information commission comprising at least three members to take up complaints against the departments reluctant to provide information to citizens within the duration of 21-day period. The proposal was vetoed by two members of the committee who said the provincial ombudsman should be assigned the task of appellant body, an experiment that has already failed at provincial and federal level. Also the fact remains that RTI laws in India, considered the best in the world, have their success grounded in the establishment of an independent information commission that is exclusively assigned to deal with the complaints and proceed against the departments not showing compliance.

Interestingly the two members of the Punjab’s committee vetoed the setting up of information commission and insisted on the role of ombudsman included the provincial ombudsman himself, a case of glaring conflict of interest. Now the issue has been referred to chief minister Punjab to resolve who has passed it on for discussion in the cabinet meeting, a development being interpreted as a delaying tactic on the part of the government that is said to be keen in keeping the role of ombudsman.

KP Draft Is Weak

The situation in KP is not different either. The provincial cabinet recently approved the draft of RTI law, however the contents of draft have been greeted with skepticism by the activists. Contrary to the deadlock in Punjab on the appellant body, the KP law has envisaged the role of information commission but that will be a one-man forum meaning thereby it would not be different from what the ombudsman would be doing in Punjab.

Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) that has been working on RTI law closely examined the KP’s RTI draft and offered clause-wise comments. About the information commission, CPDI said it should be a three-member body including a former judge of superior court, a bureaucrat with 15-year experience and one RTI activist. In order to make the commission a potent body, the CPDI suggest, it should have suo moto powers to initiate inquiry about any of the violations of the concerned laws. Contrary to role determined in the KP’s draft law reducing it to mere initiate an inquiry, CPDI, said the commission, should also be empowered to make decisions and issue appropriate directions.

Exclusions Made

 As KP’d draft RTI law has excluded provincial assembly and the courts from being questioned, CPDI has urged the provincial government to include them among the departments as they are run by public money hence be called into question like in other democracies. It also demands bringing autonomous and semi-autonomous bodies in the ambit authorising public to secure information from them. RTI laws in India and Bangladesh cover courts. Even in Pakistan, the Federal Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006, and Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 are applicable to courts.

As the KP’s draft law dealing with information exempted from seeking has loosely defined the categories leaving it to the discretion of the concerned departments to interpret law in their favour to hinder information, CPDI has demanded clearly and tightly phrased list of exempt information in order to minimise the possibility of any ambiguity.

The CPDI has also questioned the exemption of official documents ‘legally considered as state, official, business or other secrets that are accessible only to a specific group of persons.’ This exemption, the CPDI noted, is neither justifiable nor needed in the presence of other exemptions under section 4 of the draft law. “If retained in its present form, it would render the whole law ineffective,” CPDI said.

The CPDI has also questioned the exemption of documents for internal working maintained in files, any intermediary opinion or recommendation, Cabinet papers including records of the deliberation. There is no justification, the CPDI said, whatsoever to keep such information exempt, especially after a decision or a determination has been made. As it is, this exemption is not reasonable in view of regional and international best practice. In many countries around the world, including India, all such information including proposals, cabinet requested information may relate to, and include a legal person registered or incorporated in Pakistan.

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