Tweaking underway: Right to Information Ordinance undergoes overhaul

PESHAWAR: The government has amended its draft on the Right to Information (RTI) Ordinance, after the initial blueprint was criticised for certain inadequacies.

K-P Governor Engineer Shaukatullah Khan, who signed the ordinance forwarded by the provincial government on August 13, was quoted by an official source as saying: “I have signed the ordinance because the provincial government said it was very urgent.”

As this legislation is for the benefit of the public, it would have been more appropriate to first publicise the details of the draft so that its loopholes could be removed in the final legislation, the governor was reported to have said.

Shaukatullah Khan also suggested an addition to Section-5 of the ordinance, which pertains to the publication and availability of records.

Similarly, while making postings and transfers, the governor reportedly said the reason for a particular transfer and suitability of the officer being posted can also be included in the public information domain. Moreover, the Information Commission, as opposed to the government, should have the authority to decide on what documents cannot be disclosed.

According to the amendments made in the RTI draft, three members will constitute the Information Commission, which will be headed by a chief information commissioner. The Information Commission will have power similar to that of civil courts, and will be able to levy fines and summon public officials. It will also be authorised to punish those who wrongfully conceal or damage public records.

Zahoor Khan, executive director of the Centre for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA), while appreciating the changes made to the RTI draft said:

“The Information Commission must have some power as previous experiences with ombudsman offices regarding information denials did not lead to any punitive measures.”

Khan stressed, however, that it was important to take feedback from the civil society before presenting the amended version of the ordinance to the K-P Assembly.

The ordinance defines information as “material which communicates meaning and which is held in record form.”

This definition of information is very vague, argued Khan, adding it should be defined as a record which includes files, samples of documents, minutes of meetings in addition to any files, manuscripts or documents. “It must also include microfilms, images and facsimile copies of documents on any kind of device,” he added.

He said any exemption of information from public disclosure should be strictly subject to the ‘harm test’. Furthermore, the RTI law should also provide classifications of records which should be maintained, published, updated, and provided through web-portals by public authorities. This includes information on the remuneration of civil servants, budget allocations, subsidies, names of designated officials, details of facilities available to citizens, rules and regulations, tender notices, powers and duties of officials, budget demands, quarterly budget utilisation, and background facts pertinent to policy making.”

Khan further suggested there should be provisions to allow public bodies to disclose information through the internet, web-portals, and other channels of information. “Private entities and NGOs that receive substantial funding from the government should also be brought under the RTI law.

The amended RTI draft, a copy of which is available with The Express Tribune, has changed the initial 21-day timeframe for providing information to 10 working days.

The ordinance also includes a section on ‘whistle blowers’, stating no one will be subject to any legal, administrative or employment-related sanctions, provided the information pertains to serious threats to the environment or people’s health. These individuals are to be granted immunity as long as they acted in good faith and in the reasonable belief that the information was substantially true and disclose evidence of wrongdoing.