Right to Information

Amendment in Punjab’s RTI law: Civil society strongly reacted extension in commissioners’ tenure

Can the recent amendment in Punjab RTI law put the commission performance on question?

Islamabad: The rights activists and civil society have strongly reacted the Punjab Assembly’s recent amendment in Section 5 of “The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013”, terming the development needless and destructive for the performance of the Commission and commissioners.  

The right activists have also expressed concerns that the commissioners will not be able to perform in true letter and spirit against public bodies in greed of getting extension for another three years.

It is to mention here that the Punjab Assembly has recently made an amendment in Section (5) of the Punjab right to information law to open options for members of the Punjab Information Commission to get extension in their services period for another three years. Earlier, this term was not-renewable.

Besides, the Punjab Assembly also passed an amendment in the Section 6’s sub-section (4) and (6) of the Act.

Civil Society Reaction:

Punjab’s former information commissioner and CPDI Executive Director Mukhtar Ahmed Ali said enacting laws in a rushed manner, especially where the rights of people are at stake, is an extremely bad practice.

The CPDI executive director said possibility of extension in tenures may have its advantages for continuity, but it also opens the door for the government of the day to use it as an inducement to influence commissioners.

“I am sure that extension in tenures of current commissioners would a good deal, as they have performed very well, but the question here is about the long term impacts of such a change. The law must imagine all scenarios, and offer the best system that minimizes the potential risks,” says Mukhtar Ali.

Although the provincial assembly passed three amendments but most important one is in Section 5 of the law, whereby tenure of commissioners has been made extendable. This change appears to be regressive, he maintained.

“I think, that the first part of it is regressive, as it would be better if the commission would decide on distribution of work collectively,” the former commissioner said.

“Such a power with Chief Justices in courts has not always, arguably, been judiciously and fairly used — recent case in point is that of Qazi Isa,” he added.

Reacting on the commission [and not the government] shall lay the report in the provincial assembly, Mukhtar Ali said this is totally unprecedented as in a parliamentary democracy it is only the government that lays a report or proposal before the Assembly. Excluding government makes no sense and serves no useful purpose.

In this regard, activist Naeem Sadiq wrote a letter to the different ministers and media persons, raising question that while for the last 50 years, the Punjab Assembly could not pass a law on defining 18 years as the minimum age for marriage of girls and passed a ‘needless and destructive’ amendment to the Punjab right to information law.

He said the amendment provides a huge opportunity to the information commissioners to adopt a compromising and obsequious approach, soft peddle their decisions and please the public bodies by not pressurizing them for provision of information to citizens.

IRADA Executive Director Aftab Alam agreed that the recent amendment in the RTI law can affect performance of the commission, adding that greed of  getting extension for another three years can bar commissioners to put pressure on public bodies for information sharing.

“It is not necessary that the commission always gets highly motivated persons like the current commissioners, motivated to perform their responsibilities in true letter and spirit while keeping themselves away from personal interest,” Alam said

The provincial assembly can increase tenure of commissioners from existing ‘three years to four years, adding that such amendment would be productive for the commission and public both, Alam added.     

What are the amendments?

The amendment in Section 6(4) indirectly empowers chief information commissioner (CIC), as opposed to commission collectively deciding it, to distribute work among the commissioners. It also empowers a commissioner to hold inquiry and examine info on the spot in relation to a complaint assigned to him by the CIC.

Earlier only the commission or a person authorized by the commission could do it.

Amendment in Section 6(6) takes out the role of government as the Act now says that the commission [and not the government] shall lay the report in the provincial assembly.

PIC Chief Information Commissioner Mehboob Qadir Shah was also agreed that the amendments in the RTI law would have pros and cons, but emphasized that improvements in the law should continue for the betterment of the state and public.

On a question regarding impacts of the amendments on the commission performance, PIC chief said that the government should have to set a dynamic procedure for the appointing chief information commissioner, adding that the chief commissioner has enough power to put the house on track.

Qadir Shah further said there will be no affect on the commission performance if the government ensures appointment of an ideological chief commissioner, adding that passion plus innovation can make the  real difference. 

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