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New transparency regime in Pakistan

Right to information is oxygen for democracy

Finally the Right of Access to Information Act, assented to by the country’s president on October 10, 2017, has repealed the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance 2002. The FOI Ordinance was a very weak law which could not guarantee citizens the constitutional right to access information held by public bodies. Article 19-A, inserted in the Constitution of Pakistan through 18th constitutional amendment, states that ‘every citizens shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by the law’. Since the 18th constitutional amendment was passed in 2010, the new law on right to information was long overdue.

The new law has many positive attributes. It puts in place an autonomous information commission, comprising the chief information commissioner and two information commissioners. This information commission has to be established within six months of the commencement of the Act or by April 2018. The primary responsibility of the information commission is to receive and decide on appeals, in case the public bodies deny the information requests. The law has equipped the information commission with sufficient punitive powers. The information commission has the power of civil courts in respect to summoning and enforcing the attendance of witnesses and compelling them to give oral or written evidence on oath or requiring public bodies to produce the record. The information commission has the power to impose a fine on officials, who has acted willfully to obstruct the access of information to the applicant, equivalent to salary of one day to maximum 100 days. Non-compliance with the orders of the information commission can be dealt with the same way as contempt of court. Similar information commissions have already been constituted in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) under the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act of 2013 and in Punjab province under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act of 2013. Another such commission is awaited in Sindh province under the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act of 2016.

This is a major departure from the FOI Ordinance 2002, whereby the appellant body, in case of refusal of information requests by the public bodies, was the federal ombudsman. The federal ombudsman had no punitive powers as far as the non-compliance with the FOI Ordinance was concerned.

The Right to Access to Information Act 2017 fulfills the international standard of strong mechanism for the implementation of the law.

The public bodies from which the citizens can request information under the federal Right of Access to Information Act of 2017 include federal ministries, divisions, attached departments, autonomous bodies of the federal government, the National Assembly and the Senate, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, federal, municipal or any local body established under federal law, any statutory corporation or body incorporated or institute established owned or controlled by the federal government. However, the public bodies also include NGOs which are receiving public funds, subsidies or tax exemption or any other organisation which performs public functions.

Unlike the FOI Ordinance 2002, the citizens now don’t need to show any reason or fee for filing information requests with any federal public body. The information request can be filed in person, by mail, fax or email. Within 30 days after the commencement of the law, all federal public bodies have to designate officials, who should not be below grade 19, to respond to information requests under the law. The law also provides details of the information exempted from public access.

The right to information is oxygen for democracy, and the new federal right of access to information law is a good start. Pakistan is also now member of the Open Government Partnership. However, as the case of Punjab and K-P depicts, a very good law on paper can’t ensure citizens access to information without the political will of the incumbent government.