The Punjab Information Commission (PIC) on Thursday directed the Punjab Assembly to update its website with an easily accessible format for citizens to retrieve information about their representatives.
During a hearing of a complaint filed by this scribe, the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Punjab Assembly Secretariat, Muhammad Ali, admitted that though the required information is available on the website, it is not easily retrievable or accessible.
The PIO stated that the website maintains a state-of-the-art collection of information from the establishment of the Assembly secretariat till date, but the information of a particular member is not readily or quickly retrievable because it is uploaded date-wise and tenure-wise with no technological facility to retrieve information of a particular member of parliament at the click of a button, except through a complex manual exercise.
The PIO also noted that since the information is not indexed, citizens can only find the requested information by browsing each item one by one. He concluded that due to this technical handicap, he can retrieve and disclose the requisite information only with the assistance of a considerable number of staff, consuming considerable time.
In response, the PIC on Thursday passed a judgment which states that mere uploading of huge amounts of information on an official website is not enough. If the information is without indexation and lacking a technical facility to retrieve the desired information, the intent and purpose of proactive disclosure is not being served.
The order also noted that a public body has a statutory obligation under section 8 of the Act to enable a citizen to download information of their choice, including the progress of a particular member of parliament in real-time.
The four-page verdict authored by Chief Information Commission, Mehboob Qadir Shah, states that a website without such a facility means denial to disclose public information. The order further states that the real concept and spirit of proactive disclosure is not confined only to section 4 of the Act by mere uploading the information.
Sections 4 and 8 need to be read in conjunction with each other to fulfill the requirements of proactive disclosure.
PIC has directed the Director General and Secretary of the Punjab Assembly to ensure the desired technical intervention before the general elections to enable citizens to form opinions about their representatives, which is the essence of the Right to Information.
The Assembly is also directed to provide the requested information regarding the performance of the Member of the Punjab Assembly to the journalist before January 30, 2023.
It is important to note that a similar kind of appeal was received by the Pakistan Information Commission on October 27, 2020, from a citizen named Taimoor Khan.
In this appeal, the appellant stated that the notes of speeches are available on the provided link (website of the National Assembly), but to find the speech of any particular member, one has to search the speeches of all sessions of the National Assembly. He also alleged that the speeches are not categorized constituency-wise, therefore, it is not in an accessible form as required under the Act.
The Pakistan Information Commission on March 03, 2021, passed an order on the said appeal which states that after going through the response and the written reply filed by the public body, the Commission is of the considered view that the respondent has promptly and validly informed the applicant regarding the availability of the information in a generally accessible form as required under the Act. Later, through the written reply, the public body has informed the appellant in a more elaborated manner the route that can be followed for the search of the desired speeches.
Pakistan Information Commission dismissed the appeal of the citizen Taimoor Khan.
Pakistan Information Commission in another order on Appeal titled Sher Muhammad Chishti Vs National Assembly Secretariat stated that “as far as the question of gathering information from web site and sharing it with the applicants is concerned, this commission is of the view that a public body is not required to gather information and share it with applicants if it has already proactively disclosed through its web site. However, public bodies are required to ensure that information/records are made available through the web sites in accessible and easily searchable formats.”