Right to information, guaranteed by the Constitution and enacted in RTI Acts of each province has been a great blessing for Pakistan. The law has been hugely beneficial and has provided numerous excellent decisions on accountably of the public sector organisations.
The law is essentially simple. Except for the few categories already specified in the Act, government organisations are bound to provide the requested information or records to the citizens. The Information Commissions are to ensure compliance of the RTI laws by the government and enable provision of information to the citizens.
The RTI process has a great scope for further improvement, provided the Information Commissions were willing to constantly learn about the scope of the RTI Act, the nature of information sought, the excuses put forward by the government organisations, the earlier similar cases and the orders passed, and the need to ensure that cases are not closed till the information has been factually provided and agreed by the applicant.
Sadly, this is not happening and there seems to be a race in some Information Commissions for closing of cases, even when no information has been provided. Let me narrate a recent case, of Lahore Gymkhana, that insisted on not providing the requested information on grounds that it did not consider itself to be a public body.
However a law officer on behalf of the Punjab Information Commission argued that the government was “substantially financing” the Lahore Gymkhana and therefore it falls within the scope of section 2(h)(iv) of PTRI Act.
The Lahore High Court dismissed the petition of the Lahore Gymkhana Club and directed the club to furnish details of the land leased out to the club by the provincial government and record of the donors.
The excellent decision of Punjab Information Commission and judgement of the Lahore High Court ware extensively reported and widely hailed by press as well as RTI practitioners across the country. Sadly, on a different plane and a different planet, the Sindh Information Commission had no clue or understanding of this case.
Thus when a citizen recently sent an identical appeal to the Sindh Information Commission for failure of Sindh Club to provide exactly similar information as was asked from the Lahore Gymkhana, the Sindh Information Commission decided to close the case.
The Commission by itself assumed and decided that the Sindh Club was not a public body and thus a citizen could not seek any information from the club.
This is a classic example of how ignorance of ‘what is and what is not’ a public body (despite having a historic precedence on the subject) could make an Information Commission itself become a hurdle in the path of access to information.
The above incident is described only as an example of why Information Commissions need to be actively learning the skills of this subject, improving their understanding, upgrading their work processes and not giving in to pressure from the perpetually information-hiding government departments.
One hopes that the Information Commissions will rise to the occasions, learn the correct understanding of this subject, admit their mistakes and magnanimously reopen the cases that have been closed either by an error or in a hurry.