Sans rules of business, KP RTI law cuts no ice with officialdom

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Peshawar: Unless the right to information is incorporated in official rules of business making it obligatory for officials to share information with public as part of their job, access to information under the landmark Right To Information (RTI) Act 2013 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province will be marred by “the traditional lethargy and bureaucratic tactics to deny access information”, say experts that helped draft the law.

According to the Center for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA), a not-for-profit working for promotion of public accountability and good governance, the rules of business for RTI should have been prepared within a month of passage of the Act so that the government departments and officials were clear about their legal responsibilities.”

“Rules institutionalize and help make a law operational; without rules of business that translate the Act into policy and procedures at the official level, it has little use for public,” CGPA Executive Director, Muhammad Anwar told News Lens.

CGPA is member of the Coalition for the Right to Information (CRTI). CRTI is a network of 30 civil society organisations working to protect and promote citizens’ right to information in the country.

Anwar said the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa RTI Commission should have first prepared a draft of rules and elicited public feedback on it.

“The Commission in KP did not undertake any such exercise whereas the Punjab RTI Commission has already drafted rules of business even though the law in Punjab was passed after the one in KP,” said Anwar.

Due to absence of rules of business, says Anwar, vital clauses of the RTI Act including pro-active disclosure of information by government departments and public information officers were neither explained nor made obligatory on them.

Under the RTI Act 2013, information officials are supposed to respond to requests from media and public regarding information in 20 working days after an application is submitted in any government department in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The law may have buoyed up hope among those who see public information as their legal, constitutional right, but civil society actors are concerned that in the face of official tardiness and bureaucratic tendency to deny access to information, it is doomed to failure.

Faizan Hussain, a journalist with a TV channel, who submitted an application for information to the University of Peshawar three months ago, hasn’t received any response from officials yet. He says the officials hold back information as a matter of routine and deny access to information.

“Getting access to relevant information involves a lot of leg work, time and effort due to the infamous lethargy of the officialdom,” said Hussain, adding that when a reporter did get response after a long time, it was not uncommon that the information received was “incomplete and irrelevant.”

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took the lead on RTI from other provinces when the provincial government led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) introduced the RTI Act in 2013. It was passed by the KP assembly on October 31, 2013, providing access to public documents and records to citizens.

When News Lens approached the RTI Commissioner Prof. Kaleemullah about an information request this reporter had made four months ago, Kaleemullah said the application was being processed and would get a response soon.

“Your application to seek information on promotions in the KP police department is under process and be hopefully resolved soon,” said Kaleemullah.

According to RTI ACT, information should be provided to the applicant within 20 days of the application. Officials denying the requested information subject to an RTI request can be punished with a fine up to Rs 50,000, a prison sentence of up to two years, or both, according to Section 28.1 of the Act.

The law has clear and narrowly defined exemptions – information that could harm national security and economy and legally privileged information. Certain other information that could harm life or vital interests of a person are also exempted from disclosure, says the law.

According to information available on the website of RTI Commission, it has received 418 complaints since January 1st, 2015, regarding delay in provision of information. Of these 109 are still unresolved.

The data available on the website shows that the commission received 290 complaints in 2014 against government officials for blocking access to information. Eight of these remain unaddressed as the government departments against whom the complaints were lodged have yet to provide the information sought.

According to the website of RTI Commission, “the Commission can, while inquiring into a complaint, impose a fine on a Public Information Officer (PIO). The amount would be a daily fine of Rs 250 up to a maximum of Rs 25000.”

For the first time since the law came in play, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Commission fined in July the registrar of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan for refusing to provide information about hiring within the varsity and for failing to respond to an explanation notice.

Commissioner RTI Commission, Prof. Kaleemullah claims that the commission is working to ensure people’s access to information “through creating awareness about RTI as a majority of people are still unaware about the law.”

Kaleemullah said the the Official Secret Act introduced in 1923 remained enforced for almost a century resulting in strengthening the culture of secrecy.

“It will take time to change the culture of secrecy in the province,” said Kaleemullah. “We are doing our best to change the attitude of information officers and government officials towards information sharing.”

Talking to News Lens, Chief Information Commissioner Sahibzada Muhammad Khalid said it would take time to change the culture of secrecy that has prevailed in government departments for a long time.

“We are taking slow but steady steps towards complete implementation of the law,” said Khalid. “There are several issues like frequent posting of public information officers, lack of awareness among people as well as government officials etc that have slowed down progress on RTI.”

According to journalist Umar Cheema, Pakistan was the first country in South Asia to introduce an RTI legislation through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance in 2002.

“However the law defeated its own purpose as it was limited in scope with a lot of information declared exempted from disclosure and the subsequent weak enforcement mechanism,” said Cheema. “India stands 2nd in global rating of RTI laws, Bangladesh ranks 15th, Nepal occupies the 20th position while Pakistan ranks 76th among the 90 countries having RTI laws.”

In June this year, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly, through an amendment, wrote itself out of the ambit of the 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. It was adopted unopposed the very day on June 23 with members of the assembly, who had passed the ACT in 2013, agreeing that RTI would not apply to KP Assembly – essentially requests made by public seeking information from public representatives in the assembly.

“The sheer disrespect shown towards the law by amending it unbelievable,” said the former information minister of KP, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, whose Awami National Party is now in opposition. “We were neither consulted nor any discussion took place about the amendment in the assembly, which is against the spirit of law making.”

Umair Muhammadzai, a Peshawar based journalist, says not only has the KP Assembly exempted itself from being questioned under the RTI law, it has also cut down the powers of KP’s Information Commission made subordinate to a session’s court. The commission’s decision regarding RTI cases can be challenged in a district court now instead of the Supreme Court.

The Coalition on Right to Information Act (CRTI) has asked the provincial government to make the Peshawar High Court the forum for appeal against the decisions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission. In a conference held in July, the CRTI demanded an end to the exemption given to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly and Peshawar High Court. It also demanded that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission should have a chief information commissioner and two information commissioners from the bureaucracy, judiciary and civil society and immediate extension of the the KP RTI law to the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata).

Mohammadzai said the Canada-based Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) that does international ranking of the RTI laws had once declared the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa RTI Act 2013 as one of the best in the world, but now its status had been diminished after the amendment that excludes the provincial assembly from its ambit.

He said other departments like the Higher Education Commission KP and the Law Department KP were also trying to write themselves out of the sphere of RTI law.

However, according to the Information Commissioner Professor Kaleemullah, the fact that the KP assembly amended the law to leave out the ministers suggests that the law had teeth and its implementation made everyone nervous.

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