Misconceptions about Right to Information Laws

Now that provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab have put in place right to information laws in the shape of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Ordinance 2013 and ‘Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Ordinance 2013, misgivings, misconceptions and confusion surrounding these laws need to be addressed.
Will these ordinances lapse or will these be given protection through Acts of their respective assemblies? How will public officials perform their duties? What will happen when people will start abusing this law? How will this law be useful for a common man? How will these laws be implemented?
It can be safely assumed that these ordinances will turned into Acts given public pledges and political will expressed by both PTI and PML-N on this issue. Furthermore, people want concrete actions and not mere slogans of good governance. Of all the stakeholders, misgivings of the public officials about right to information laws are most unfounded. According to a recent research study carried out by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiatives, (CHRI) 4 million Indians exercised their right to information in 2011-12. Did it lead to the shutting down of Indian government? Similarly, the apprehension that the law will be misused has no merit as only that information will be provided to the requesters which should be in public domain in the first place. Furthermore, there is no major reported case of any of the 4 million Indians abusing this law or for that matter anywhere from the world. While expressing their reservations about right to information law, public officials often tend to overlook that they are also citizens and as such can also benefit from this law. Apart from attaining their rights as citizens of Pakistan, they can use right to information law in matters pertaining to transfers, postings and promotions as has been done by their Indian counterparts.
The concern of the common people as to whether this law will be implemented or not stems from the status of respect for the rule of law in the country. There is greater likelihood of both KP and Punjab information laws getting implemented on two counts. Firstly, People will be direct beneficiaries of these laws and as such there will be greater level of interest on their part in their implementation. More importantly, both laws have strong implementation mechanisms in the shape of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission and Punjab Information Commission. Both these laws have been vested with powers to impose penalty on the public official for unlawfully delaying access to information. The Federal Ombudsman, the appellate body under Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, and Sindh Ombudsman and Balochistan Ombudsman under Sindh Freedom of Information Act 20006 and Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 have proven to be toothless and ineffective as their respective laws did not empowered these appellate bodies to hold public officials accountable for dereliction in the discharge of their duties.
In comparative terms, both KP and Punjab right to information laws have their strong and weak points but the common thing is that both need to be improved when these laws are turned into Acts by their respective assemblies. Unlike KP Right to Information Ordinance 2013, Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Ordinance 2013 includes legal entities also in the definition of applicant. This means only citizens of Pakistan can file information requests and media organization or for that matter any organization will not be able to file information requests under KP law. Furthermore, KP law does not include Peshawar High Court within the definition of public body which needs to be changed. Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court, (PHC) is not only the top judge of the province but he also acts as administrative head of PHC and in this capacity is involved in making contracts, procurements from public funds and citizens have every right to know how these funds are being utilised.
Punjab law leaves the question of penalty to be decided under the rules which will be framed later. Under KP RTI Ordinance 2013, penalty for unlawfully denying or delaying access to information is Rs250 per day which can go up to Rs25000. The penalty should be one day salary of the official and should go up to one month salary as Rs250 will be meaningless after couple of years due to inflation factor and definitely 5 or ten years down the road it will be a joke. The proposed procedure for appointing members of information commissions seems better in the KP law. The Chief Commissioner will be a senior retired bureaucrat who will be appointed by the government. Of the three members, one will be a retired judge who will be appointed by Peshawar High Court and one will be a senior lawyer, who will be the nominated by the Peshawar Bar Council. There is ambiguity about the nomination of the third member of the commission who is to be from civil society as the task of nominating has been entrusted to Pakistan Human Rights Commission, a body which has not been formed yet.
The weakest link in Punjab law is the proposed formation of Punjab Information Commission. The law says that commission will not have more than three members which means that it can be one member commission, rendering the whole implementation mechanism ineffective. Furthermore, all these members will be appointed by the government and unlike the KP law, civil society will have no role to play in this regard. Other than these anomalies which can easily be dealt with, these are effective laws and meet standards of right to information legislation. Once these anomalies are removed when these ordinances are turned into Acts, citizens will not only be able to use them for personal benefits but also for public good.

The writer is Coordinator of Coalition on Right to Information, (CRTI). E-mail: coordinator@crti.org.pk Twitter: @XahidAbdullah
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