2013 – A Watershed Year for RTI Movement in Pakistan

24 January 2014

By Zahid Abdullah

Zahid Abdullah works for Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) and is also Coordinator of Coalition on Right to Information, (CRTI).

2013 will always be regarded as a watershed year for right to information movement in Pakistan.

Although Pakistan was the first country in the South Asia to have introduced a national law of right to information in the shape of Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, it was a largely ineffective law and all its provisions were found lacking when juxtaposed with standards of right to information legislation. There was no civil society input when this law was promulgated and when its replicas in Balochistan and Sindh were enacted in the shape of Balochistan Freedom of Information 2005 and Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006. In the last ten years, civil society groups in Pakistan have been endeavoring for the repeal of these laws through the enactment of new laws. Civil society groups in Pakistan have been using these laws in order to create awareness about right to information.

Indian Law Set Example

The best thing that happened to right to information movement in South Asia in the last decade has been the enactment of Indian Right to Information Act 2005. Apart from empowering citizens at home, Indian law has served as a tremendous example to stress and highlight the need for enactment of its counterparts at federal and provincial tiers of government in Pakistan. As both the countries inherited same colonial legacy in the shape of legal frameworks  aimed at ensuring master-slave relationship between citizens and state functionaries, the Indian RTI law was a major departure from outdated past practices and became a powerful tool in the hands of common people to reshape the relationship of a citizens and a state functionary into that of a citizen and a public servant.

Next-door-neighbor example was far easier to sell to the policy makers than quoting examples of RTI acts of western countries. The fact that Indians were able to use this law both for personal benefits and for public good was a major booster for right to information movement in Pakistan as right to information no more remained an abstract concept. The RTI came into the realm of the real when RTI activists in Pakistan started quoting examples like old Indian lady using RTI as tool for getting her passport which was being delayed owing to bureaucratic shenanigans.

Gathering Momentum

The right to information movement in the country started getting momentum when general elections were announced to be held on May 12, 2012. Civil society groups started engaging political parties on the issue of right to information legislation the political parties were urged to include right to information legislation in their party manifestoes.

As a result of these efforts, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, (PTI) made a specific commitment through its manifesto that it would carry out legislation on right to information if it came to power. The other parties also mentioned right to information in their party manifestoes but none came closer to PTI in terms of making specific commitment in party manifesto to legislate on this issue.

One major development occurred on March 17, less than two months prior to the general elections. Chief Minister of Punjab kept on making tall claims about good governance in his province throughout his five years tenure but did not enact right to information law. In an interview, Umar Cheema, a senior journalist who takes keen interest in right to information issues asked pertinent questions to the Chief Minister as to why RTI law could not be enacted in Punjab in his tenure. As a result of these probing questions, the Chief Minister made a public pledge that right to information law would be the first one to be enacted once he returned to power after the elections.

The Chief Minister came into power again and civil society groups kept on reminding him about his public pledge about the enactment of right to information law. He was persistently reminded of his promise through advertisement in newspapers, advocacy letters, press releases and rallies. In the meanwhile, PTI included right to information legislation in its governance reform agenda for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where it was leading the coalition government. This brings us into the politics of right to information legislation.

PTI Followed Through

PTI was serious in enacting an effective right to information law for the province.

Right to information advocates engaged with PTI and a draft right to information law was shared with PTI central leadership which it sent to provincial bureaucracy for whetting it and to take other necessary steps to get it enacted. KP bureaucracy played its tricks and got the draft right      to information law approved from the provincial cabinet in June 2013. The draft was not shared with civil society groups and RTI advocates were able to get it through inside sources.

It was a watered down version of the law that was earlier shared by RTI activists. Civil society groups joined hands and on July 24, 2013, a press conference was held in Peshawar, provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where civil society took to task provincial bureaucracy and PTI leadership for not being able to get its act together on right to information legislation. Consequently, central leadership met with provincial leadership of PTI and the bureaucracy and it was conveyed in no uncertain terms that PTI wanted an effective right to information law for the province. After these meetings, provincial bureaucracy was convinced that political leadership was serious and wanted an effective right to information law for the province.

As a result of these civil society efforts, the KP Right to Information Ordinance 2013 that was shared on August 17, 2013 met international standards of right to information legislation and in November 2013, Toby Mendel, Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy shared in a conference in Islamabad that KP RTI law was better than the 95 national laws that CLD had studied.

Judiciary Gets Exemption

One major flaw in KP RTI ordinance was the exemption provided to Peshawar High Court as PHC is not included in the definition of public body neither in the ordinance nor in the Act that was passed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly on October 31, 2013. Judiciary in Pakistan is expanding its sphere of influence and it is often at loggerheads with Parliament.

It is not clear whether provincial judiciary exerted pressure on the provincial government not to include superior judiciary within the purview of right to information law or KP government extended this favor on its own to the judiciary.

According to the constitution, an ordinance promulgated by a Governor has a life of 90 days after which it lapses if not extended for further 90 days by provincial assembly. KP Assembly constituted Select Committee to give its recommendations so that KP Right to Information Ordinance 2013 could be adopted as an Act of Assembly before it lapsed. The Select Committee came up with suggestions to exempt Secretariat of KP Assembly, provide reasons for asking the information and imposing penalty for the misuse of information with malicious intent.

When the civil society groups got wind of these negative proposals, intense campaign was launched in print and social media engaging top leadership of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa political leadership and as a result these proposals were dropped. However, the proposal of imposing penalty for the misuse of information attained through KP Right to Information Act 2013 was accepted by the KP Assembly which is a major blot on this otherwise excellent law along with the exemption extended to Peshawar High Court. Especially, the process of filing information requests  is easy and cost-effective as there is no fee for filing information request and for first 20 pages of the information request and only actual cost for reproducing information and sending it the requester will be charged.

Pressure on Punjab

The politics of right to information legislation manifested itself in the shape of pressure on Punjab government on the issue of enacting right to information law.

When KP government introduced RTI law on August 17 in the shape of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Ordinance 2013, the Punjab government came under immense pressure. In order to counter the backlash from civil society groups, the Punjab government advertised its draft right to information law in major newspapers for public comments and feedback and eventually promulgated right to information law in the shape of Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Ordinance 2013 on October 04, 2013. This ordinance was passed as an Act of Punjab Assembly on November 12, 2013 in the shape of Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013.

The major flaw in Punjab RTI law is that it says that members of Punjab Information Commission will not be more than three which means that there could be one member Punjab Information Commission. However, the process of filing information requests is also easy and cost effective as there is no fee for filing information request and only the actual cost of reproducing information and sending it to the applicant will be charged. Whereas KP RTI law imposes fine of Rs. 250 on the public official for each day of unlawfully delaying access to information, the fine suggested in Punjab law is innovative as it has been linked with two day salary of the public official for each day of delay in providing the requested information.

Still Little Movement at Federal Level

While KP and Punjab enacted robust and progressive right to information laws in 2013, federal government seems less than keen to protect and promote citizens right to information.

The draft RTI bill that was approved by Senate sub-Committee of Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting is, ironically, as bad as Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 it seeks to repeal if not worse. It is so badly drafted that it cannot be salvaged by incorporating amendments in the draft as it exists.

All in all, 2013 will be fondly remembered by right to information activists as it was an year in which Punjab, housing over 100 million people enacted for the first time right to information law along with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information law which has the potential to quoted as an example of a model right to information law within the region and beyond.

With KP and Punjab laws in place, challenge for civil society groups is to get these laws implemented and make them relevant to common people in solving their service delivery issues.  Furthermore, advocacy initiatives will have to be intensified for enactment of progressive and effective right to information laws at the federal level by repealing Freedom of Information Ordinance 2013 and its replicas adopted by Sindh and Balochistan provinces. While Indian Right to Information Act 2005 has been a beacon of light for RTI activists in Pakistan for a long time, KP Right to Information Act 2013 and Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 have immense value as examples from home for enactment of robust laws at federal level and in provinces of Sindh and Balochistan.

 

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