Inadequate representation: Legal anomaly prevents RTI law’s extension to FATA

PESHAWAR: Though Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) recently introduced the right to information (RTI) legislation in a step towards greater transparency, the neighbouring tribal belt still has a long way to go before any such law is put in place.

Civil society members say Article 247 of the Constitution prevents the RTI law from being extended to Fata. According to the said article, it is the sole discretion of the President of Pakistan and the governor of the respective province (in this case K-P) – while acting as an agent of the President – to order the extension of any law to Fata and the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata).

“This provision takes away the basic democratic right of the citizens of the tribal areas to be represented by their elected representatives in the National Assembly,” said a government official requesting anonymity.

“It is a fact that MNAs from Fata can participate in making legislation for the rest of the country, but not Fata itself,” he added. Residents of the tribal belt have no representation in the provincial assembly either.

“Even the RTI Bill that remained under consideration with the Senate Committee on Information and Broadcasting does not include Fata in its jurisdiction. The committee also failed to recommend the federal government to fix the constitutional anomaly,” lamented the official.

‘A fundamental human right’

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights regards right to information as a fundamental human right. It has also been accorded constitutional protection through the inclusion of Article 19-A into the Constitution of Pakistan via the 18th Amendment.

However, Article 247 – which covers Fata – continues to contradict Article 19-A.

Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI) Coordinator Zahid Abdullah told The Express Tribune, “If the legal and constitutional framework of a country does not protect a right which is universal and indivisible, and excludes people living in certain geographical areas, it is tantamount to treating them as lesser human beings.”

Abdullah urged the federal government to remove the constitutional anomaly immediately so that residents of Fata can exercise their right to access information held by federal public bodies operating in the tribal belt.

He also added the provincial government needs to work with the federal government to bring about the desired constitutional amendments and legislative reforms to protect and promote right to information for tribal residents.

Executive Director for non-governmental organisation Centre for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA), Muhammad Zahoor said Article 247 negates the fundamental rights of Fata’s residents and proves to be the main blockage in bringing the area into the mainstream. “The said article awards non-representative and undemocratic status to Fata and Pata,” he claimed.

Zahoor maintained without changing governance paradigms in the tribal areas to ensure the availability of basic human rights, peace and stability in the region cannot be guaranteed. He added Article 247 further states, ‘Neither the Supreme Court nor a High Court shall exercise any jurisdiction under the Constitution in relation to a tribal area.’

“This provision violates Article 25 of the Constitution which states all citizens are equal before the law,” remarked Zahoor, adding the provision deprives residents of tribal areas the right to fair trial and equality before the law.