Sahiwal: After a failed attempt in February 2023, the Punjab government has sparked fresh controversy by issuing a notification on January 22, 2024, removing Chief Information Commissioner Syed Mehboob Qadir Shah and commissioners Dr. Arif Mushtaq and Chaudhary Shaukat Ali from their posts.
The notification, issued by Secretary, Information and Culture Department Daniyal Saleem Gilani, cites “misconduct” as the reason for removal, allegedly for not submitting comments on audit paras despite reminders. However, sources close to the Information Commission claim that the real motive lies in the commissioners’ recent decisions, particularly those requiring disclosure of sensitive information like details of business given to media outlets and dual nationalities of cabinet members.
Further controversy arises from the removal process. Critics point out blatant disregard for Sections 5(8) to 5(12) of the Act, which mandate due process, including show cause notices, defense opportunities, and potential referral to the Provincial Assembly for open inquiries. These steps were bypassed, with removal notices served hastily at commissioners’ residences just two days after their reply to the show cause notice.
This is not the first time the government has attempted to remove the PIC members. A similar notification issued in February 2023 was revoked after legal challenges.
Civil society organizations have condemned the latest move as an attack on transparency and accountability, raising concerns about government interference in information access.
Chief Information Commissioner Mehboob Qadir Shah, in particular, has been a vocal advocate against the status quo and the culture of secrecy. His consistent efforts over five and a half years to promote transparency have been a source of pride for those advocating for access to information and freedom of information as granted under Article 19-A of the Constitution of Pakistan.
Shah’s steadfast fight against the status quo and elite capture is evident in more than 20 thousand orders he has issued, reflecting ideals of equality, humanism, and participatory democracy.
The commissioners, all with distinguished careers, are seen as competent and upright figures. Syed Mehboob Qadir Shah, a former district and sessions judge and Lahore High Court Registrar, was initially appointed by Shehbaz Sharif and later given an extension by Usman Buzdar.
Dr. Arif Mushtaq, a senior police officer, served as Chief of Police in different districts and as Additional IG (Special Branch) Punjab.
Chaudhary Shaukat Ali, brother of former Corps Commander Bilal Akbar, is also seen as a respected official.
The hasty and questionable removal of the PIC members has created a storm of controversy, with legal challenges and public criticism likely to follow.
The ultimate outcome will depend on whether the government can justify its actions within the legal framework and address concerns about transparency and political influence.