Right to Information

Senate Secretariat Flouts RTI Act

The Senate Secretariat, the administrative arm of Pakistan’s upper house of parliament, is hesitant to comply with the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 commonly known as (RTI), and even orders from the Pakistan Information Commission.

The issue came to light after journalist Nadeem Umer, based in Rawalpindi, filed an RTI request in October 2021. Umer, exercising his constitutional right guaranteed under Article 19-A of the Constitution of Pakistan, sought record relating to the recruitment within the Senate Secretariat from January 2018 onwards.

However, the Senate Secretariat did not respond to Umer’s request. This compelled him to lodge an appeal before the Pakistan Information Commission. After considering arguments from both sides, the Commission ruled in Umer’s favor on August 16, 2022. The Commission declared the information sought by Umer as a public record and directed the Senate Secretariat to provide the requested information/documents within seven days.

Despite over two years having passed, the Senate Secretariat has neither implemented the Commission’s order nor challenged it in the Islamabad High Court. The Pakistan Information Commission has issued multiple show cause notices to the Secretary of the Senate Secretariat demanding compliance with the order. However, the Commission has yet to impose any fines for non-compliance.

This lack of transparency is not an isolated incident. The Senate Secretariat has reportedly been reluctant to disclose information in numerous other appeals. Another citizen, Murtaza Hashim, filed a request in January 2021 seeking details on vacant positions (BPS-17 and above) in the Senate of Pakistan and Senate Secretariat, Islamabad.

He also requested information on gross and net salaries paid to Section Officers (BPS-17 & 18) and Deputy Secretaries, along with details of all allowances provided to these employees. Additionally, Hashim sought a copy of the notification for the payment of bonuses to employees on the eve of the budget session conclusion.

The Senate Secretariat, in response to both appeals, cited Rule 258 of the Rules of Procedures and Conduct of Business in the Senate, 2012, along with Section 7(f) of the RTI Act, 2017. They argued that these provisions authorize the Chairman Senate to declare any record of the Senate Secretariat as classified.

The Senate Secretariat further claimed that the Chairman Senate’s authority to classify information is “absolute, unqualified and final,” and not subject to appeal. They contended that the Information Commission lacks jurisdiction to overrule the decision of an important constitutional office bearer or interpret Section 7(f) differently. According to the Secretariat, this power lies solely with the superior judiciary.

However, the Pakistan Information Commission, in its order dated October 20, 2021, rejected the Senate Secretariat’s plea regarding jurisdiction. The Commission pointed out that Section 2(ix)(c) of the RTI Act, 2017 clearly defines the “Senate” as a public body, which includes its secretariat, committees, and members. The Commission argued that legislators had clearly intended for the Senate, including its various components, to be subject to the RTI Act.

The Commission further disagreed with the Senate Secretariat’s interpretation of Section 7(f). They clarified that under the Act, the Minister-in-charge of the Federal Government can only classify information if they provide documented reasons explaining why the potential harm from disclosure outweighs the public interest. The Commission emphasized that information related to allegations of corruption and human rights violations cannot be classified under any circumstances.

The Information Commission, in its order, allowed Hashim’s appeal and directed the Senate Secretariat to provide the requested information within ten days. However, more than two years later, the Senate Secretariat has not provided the information regarding recruitment details or employee perks and privileges.

This lack of transparency and the Information Commission’s hesitation to enforce its orders are significant hurdles in ensuring openness and accountability within the upper house of parliament.

Critics argue that if the very institution that created the RTI Act refuses to comply with it, how can citizens expect other public bodies to implement the law effectively?

Saddia Mazhar

Saddia Mazhar, an accomplished Investigative Journalist hailing from District Sahiwal, Punjab, possesses a fervor for unveiling impactful narratives. With a demonstrated history of hosting radio shows, web TV programs, contributing to esteemed publications, and steering digital media platforms, she stands as a notable figure in the field. Connect with her on Twitter @SaddiaMazhar. She can be contacted at thesaddia@gmail.com
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