Access denied: Legislation on RTI remains unlikely

With only a few weeks left before the provincial government’s tenure ends, legislation on the right to information (RTI) is unlikely to see the light of day – even if the last session of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Assembly is held shortly.

At the 55th cabinet meeting on February 18, Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said the government has “good intentions” regarding the RTI, especially since the authority to carve out a relevant law has been devolved to provinces under the 18th Amendment.

Hussain, however, said the government was acting cautiously upon the province’s draft of the Access to Information Act 2013. “We are careful about the matter as so far no action has been taken by the federal government or other provinces on access to information.”

Officials said the province’s draft on the RTI policy is still lying with the bureaucracy even though the government is set to complete its tenure.

The constitutional protection accorded to people through Article 19-A under the 18th Amendment is one of the most significant developments for citizens’ rights.

Article 19-A states: “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.”

The national and provincial assemblies are required to enact laws by laying down procedure delineating how citizens can exercise this right.

“RTI legislation is considered a tool against corruption and oxygen for democracy,” maintains Aftab Alam, Executive Director of Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development.

“If ANP had shown half the resilience it showed in the case of changing the name of the province, residents of K-P would have been able to exercise their right to information.”

A member of Centre for Peace and Development Initiative, Zahid Abdullah pointed out: “If you have a legal framework, then you can protect your rights.” He found it ironic that there is a rough draft of the law addressing the right to information, but no one knows any details or has access to it.

The Express Tribune learnt that out of K-P’s 25 districts, only two provided copies of their education and health budget books in response to information requests filed by the Centre for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA) with district officers (DOs) of finance and planning.

CGPA Programme Coordinator Abid Hussain said they filed information requests for budget books for fiscal year 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 in January 2013. Article 19-A of the Constitution was cited in these information requests.

However, only DOs from Chitral and Upper Dir provided the requested data. DOs of Malakand said such information can be accessed from the K-P Secretariat’s finance department. CGPA did not receive any response from the remaining 22 districts.

Hussain contended disclosure of such information could promote citizens’ trust in state functionaries. “Treating budget books as an official secret is tantamount to violation of the basic constitutional right of the citizens of Pakistan.”

Hussain stressed a comprehensive RTI law in K-P should be enacted soon according to the best international practices. “The law should provide for proactive disclosure of information, minimum exclusion/exception list of information not to be released under the RTI, and an independent and powerful provincial information commission to decide the denial of certain information requests,” he said.

According to social activist and educationist Zubaida Khatoon, “a change in mindsets and education, along with a change in the political and bureaucratic culture, is imperative for an effective RTI regime in the country.”