ISLAMABAD: Up to 257 citizens have received information from public sector bodies under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 with the intervention of the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC), states the PIC annual report available on its website.
The PIC received at total of 682 appeals against different public bodies for not providing information under the RTI Law since its establishment in 2018; of which 257 applicants have received information so far and the remaining appeals are at various stages to resolve, the report further states.
It is to mention here that there is no record available about how many citizens used the right to get information from public bodies under the RTI Law as there is no mechanism available with the state to keep record of public requests.
The citizens frequently using the RTI Law to get information from the public sector bodies said that most of the public departments/ bodies were found reluctant in sharing information and many of them even don’t bother to respond to the citizens requests.
The Commission received 37 appeals against the Ministry of Defence, which is the highest number of appeals against any public sector body since 2018, followed by 36 appeals received against the registrar office of the Supreme Court, 25 against Cantonment Boards and 21 against the Ministry of Finance.
The Commission also received 14 appeals against the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 17 against Capital Development Authority (CDA), 15 against Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and 14 against Federal Board of Revenue (FBR).
Meanwhile, the Commission issued a total of 139 detailed orders against different public sector bodiesfor delaying or unlawfully denying access to information to citizens during the respective period.
The highest number of orders was issued against four public bodies: the Ministry of Interior, Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), NADRA and CDA, the report reveals. At least six orders were issued by the Commission against each aforementioned body on the appeals of citizens.
The Commission issued four orders each against MoFA, FIA, Cabinet Division, the Ministry of Law and Justice, Metropolitan Corporation, NBP and Cantonment Boards.
The annual report claims that each order of the Commission is being vigorously pursued for implementation through show-cause notices, seeking time-bound compliance reports. So far, ECP, Office of the President, SNGPL, the Ministry of Law and Justice and NTDC have challenged orders of the commission in the High Court, the Commission report states.
The report further states, “Instead of implementing the Order of the commission or challenging them in the Islamabad High Court, as required under the Act, the Senate Secretariat sent a letter to the commission stating that Chairman Senate is authorized to declare any, or, all records of the Senate Secretariat as classified.”
The Commission, in its order, had declared the requested information about the sanction posts or quota for persons with disabilities public information under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017.
It is pertinent to mention here that after the Commission order, public representatives were working to amend the Law to exclude members of the Senate and National Assembly from the RTI law. However, public rights activists and organizations have opposed any such amendment in the respective law.
The analysis of the appeals filed by citizens reveals that most of the requests pertained to finalised audit and audit reports of public bodies, number of FIRs filed under different provisions of Cyber law and number of convictions, certified copies of the contracts signed by public bodies to hire services of sanitary workers, total number of sanctioned and vacant posts in different public bodies and the quota for the disabled and transgender persons, certified copies of the merit lists of candidates and recruitment criteria , details of assets of judges and officers and salaries, perks, privileges and benefits of judges, civil and military officers, the report states.
These appeals suggest that, through the exercise of their right of access to information in matters of public importance, citizens’ aim at realising their other rights like access to justice, gainful employment on equal basis by ensuring judicious utilisation of public funds, improving governance, reducing corruption and inefficiency in public bodies through transparency and public accountability, the annual report adds.
Meanwhile, the Commission has drafted, notified and published the Right of Access to Information Act Rules 2020 in response to the queries of the Ministry of Law and Justice, which has been notified after the approval of the Federal Cabinet.
Along with many other steps in the best public interest, the Commission developed and notified a Schedule of Costs for the guidance of applicants and government officers on August 23, 2019.
With this guideline, citizens will no longer be required to first deposit fees for filing an information request under the Schedule of Cost notified by the commission. Previously, citizens were required to deposit Rs50 at the time of submitting an information request to a federal public body under Freedom of Information Rules 2004 which was a great hindrance in the exercise of the right of access to information in matters of public importance as guaranteed by Article 19-A of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Challenges to PIC
The annual report states that the major challenge faced by the Commission involved administrative and logistical arrangements, especially in terms of setting up its office. The Commission could have performed much better if the government had managed to provide small office space and minimal staff soon after its establishment.
The report further states lack of public awareness about the Act; endemic; culture of secrecy; consequent resistance to provide access to information; lack of interest and initiatives on the part of administrative heads of departments in terms of owning and implementing the Act and limited capacity at lower levels of the government for efficient disposal of information requests were some other challenges that kept hampering the Commission work.
What is RTI Law ?
The right of access to information law gives every Pakistani citizen the right to know what development projects have been started or completed by the public sector organizations and departments with the taxes they pay.
The right of access to information also allows citizens to get information about the expenditure on development work in his/her area. In addition, the law gives permission to citizens to know about the performance of the government agencies, salaries of employees and the benefits they receive.
The Right of Access to Information Act was formally enacted in Pakistan in 2017, making it possible to obtain official information, but critics say it is important to change this mindset for transparent and better governance in the country. Which hinders the release of official information.
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan in 2010 included access to information as a fundamental right of citizens, after which the Access to Information Act was passed by the Parliament in 2017.
Under this law, the Pakistan Information Commission was set up, which is responsible for ensuring the implementation of the Access to Information Act.
It is to mention here that Pakistan is among the 130 countries in the world where there is an access to information law under which any citizen can get information of his/ her interest from any public sector body.