Era of right to information begins in Pakistan

Muhammad Zahoor: Nothing can be more supportive to democracy than informed citizenry whose right to access information is legally protected. Citizens who don't know about functions of governments can't make informed decisions in electing their representatives. That is why right to access information is widely considered as 'oxygen' for democracy. Information is power, and nothing can empower citizens more than free flow of information from decision makers and service providers. Right to information is also considered as enabler for protection of other fundamental rights and an effective anti-corruption tool. That is why constitution of Pakistan provides for Right to Information (RTI) under Article 19-A, inserted through 18thamendment in 2010. After the 18th amendment, it has become constitutional obligation for all federal and provincial governments in Pakistan to enact effective RTI laws.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) province took the lead in enacting a good RTI law in the form of Right to Information Act passed by the K-P provincial assembly on October 31, 2013. The Punjab Assembly passed Transparency and Right to Information bill on December 12, 2013. Both K-P and Punjab provinces introduced RTI laws through promulgating RTI Ordinances. These both laws are far effective compared to Federal FOI Ordinance 2002, Balochistan FOI Act 2005 and Sindh FOI Act 2006.

Both KP and Punjab RTI laws provide for proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies. This category includes public bodies' information related to budgets, expenditures, functions, duties, and criterion for discharge of duties, statement of categories of information held by pubic bodies, remuneration, perks and privileges of officials.

In both KP and Punjab RTI laws, the process of filing information requests is very simple. There is no fee for filing of information requests, and information requesters don't need to show 'reason' for filing information requests. Both laws provide for designation of information officers by all public bodies in their respective provincial departments, who will be responsible for provision of information as requested. Both laws provides for constituting provincial information commissions, for redressing citizens' grievance related to denial of information requests . These information commissions will have punitive powers, to levy fine on public information officer in case the information requests in not provided within stipulated time, which is 10 days in K-P and 14 days in Punjab. In case of K-P, the penalty on denial of information requests ranges from PKR 250 to 25,000. K-P has already appointed Chief Information Commissioner, while two other information commissioners are expected to be appointed soon. K-P Right to Information law also provides for protection of whistle blowers. This is very positive step for curbing corruption in public bodies. Those who provide information on incidents of corruption should be protected and rewarded. In K-P, Peshawar High Court is excluded from preview of K-P RTI law, which needs to be included.

It is expected that Right to Information laws will go long way in promoting citizens' trust on state functionaries. These laws have the potential to change the whole dynamics of relationship between citizens and service providers. If citizens can question where and how their tax money is allocated and utilized, and hold their public service providers accountable, then they can participate in improving public service delivery. Trust on public entities is the first prerequisite for state legitimacy which these RTI laws can help improves. Once citizens trust public entities and are satisfied with their service delivery, they will happily deposit taxes and will fulfill their duties as required for the betterment of Pakistan.

There is need for informing citizens about these RTI laws, so they can use it for their personal and social benefits. Civil society groups shall join hands with governments of K-P and Punjab in strengthening the implementation of RTI laws. Furthermore, Sindh and Balochistan provinces should also enact effective RTI laws, as per requirements of Article 19-A of constitution of Pakistan. At federal level, the draft FOI bill approved by the senate panel is very weak and needs thorough revision. Federal government should not replace one ineffective FOI law with another ineffective FOI law by contemplating Federal Ombudsman as grievance redress for information denial by federal public bodies. Draft Federal FOI bill should also revise the list of exempted information from public access. Furthermore, the RTI law needs to be extended to Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The writer is the Executive Director of the Centre for Governance and Public Accountability