Peshawar: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Provincial Assembly, through an amendment, has been removed from the ambit of the KP Right to Information (RTI) Act 2013. The amendment was tabled in the house when the opposition parties had boycotted the session on the differences over the KP annual financial budget. The amendment was adopted unopposed the very day on June 23 that says that RTI would not be applicable on the KP Assembly.
“The sheer disrespect to the procedures of law making and amendment make this new change in the law unacceptable and illegal. Neither were we consulted nor did any discussion take place about the new amendment in the assembly, which is against the spirit of law making,” says the former information minister of KP Mian Iftikhar Hussain, while Talking to News Lens Pakistan.
The KP assembly passed the Right to Information Act on October 31, 2013 to provide access to public documents and records to the citizens. The information that could be accessed through RTI includes all internal working documents of a public body, and proposals for Cabinet decisions, relating to management of the national economy, matters relating to law enforcement and public safety, investigative reports undertaken by agencies for the prevention and detection of crime and for the collection and assessment of taxes, and any information obtained or received in the course of any investigation.
The RTI law was a feather in the cap of the Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) led government in KP for being the first ever provincial government in the country to take such a bold step. The law underscores accountability of the government officials and the lawmakers by opening them up to public scrutiny. However, exempting the proceedings of the assembly from this scrutiny has raised suspicions among the political and social activists and civil society about the intentions of the government.
The Right to Information Commission KP are also skeptical of this new move and fear it could set a wrong precedent.
“Tomorrow other public entities like the Governor Secretariat or the Chief Minster Secretariat would also seek such exemptions,” says Professor Kalimullah, Information Commissioner RTI KP.
Marking it an unwise decision of the KP government, he argues that the taxpayers have the right to question the government. They have the right to know why governments do what they do. The legislators are answerable to their constituents and hiding the proceeding of the assemblies from the public strikes at the very foundation of the RTI law.
Another official of the RTI Commission confided in the News Lens Pakistan on condition of anonymity that the amendment was brought about on the personal request of the KP Assembly Speaker, Asad Qaisar.
“He was loath to give out information about the working of Speaker’s chamber even after repeated requests from different applicants and the Commission itself, said the officer.
Assad Qaiser had been reported in media supporting the amendment saying: “After the devolution of power to the local government, the provincial assembly does not need to be racked up for information on its conduct or on the conduct of its lawmakers.”
Arif Yousaf, the advisor to the Chief Minister on law affairs, defends the amendment saying it restricts information only about adjournment motions, proceedings and assembly rules.
“But anyone seeking information about the speaker’s chamber, his constituency is welcome there are no barriers to the access of such information.
People can still access the information about the assets of the lawmakers and the development funds given to the provincially elected representatives.
If the decision proves wrong, the provincial government would definitely reconsider the amendment.
We will keep an eye on the public opinion over this new development and follow it in cabinet meetings as well. We are willing to repeal the amendment in case of an overwhelming opposition against it,” says Yousuf.
Anwar, Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Governance and Public Accountability says, “Exemption of the provincial assembly from the RTI Act is deplorable. The move is in violation of the PTI manifesto.
The PTI had made promises, during general elections, on controlling corruption in the province and making the government officials accountable for their wrong acts. When the RTI Act was passed, the government reinforced its commitment to combat corruption through transparency and good governance.
With this amendment, the PTI has not only backtracked on its stance, it has also reneged on its promise to relieve the province from the clutches of corruption.
The Peshawar High Court is already exempted from the RTI Act, and now with the removal of the legislative body, the sphere of the law has been shrunk to include only the executive, the administration and the lower judiciary,” says Anwar to the News Lens Pakistan.
Further lamenting over the new amendment Mian Iftikhar says the RTI has become a futile exercise with the removal of the assembly’s proceedings from its ambit.
“This amendment will be used as an excuse by different government departments to deny access to information. The simple argument against the access to information would be that since the matter was taken up in the assembly, therefore it could not be made public.
The RTI has been weekend by this amendment,” says Mian Iftikhar
He praised the RTI Act of Punjab being more transparent since it includes the High Court and the provincial assemblies.
He says the KP Speaker is avoiding accountability by tweaking the RTI law. The government should roll back this amendment to ensure transparency.
Farhad Afridi, a Peshawar High Court lawyer, condemns the amendment saying it shows the lawmakers are frightened of seeing the skeletons in their cupboards exposed.
However, to Arshad Ali, another Peshawar High Court lawyer, the amendment is legal. He argues that the government is empowered under Article 19 A of the Constitution of Pakistan to lay such restrictions on the access to information. The Article reads: “Every citizen shall have the right to access to information in all matters of public importance, subject to regulation and restriction imposed by law”
“If the constitution of Pakistan has set limits to the right of the citizens to access information of public interest, then the provincial government has every right to restrict their right,” Ali says to the News Lens Pakistan.