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Low budget, manpower shortage thwart RTI function

SAHIWAL: The Punjab government has drastically slashed awareness and advocacy budget approved in 2014-15 after passage of ‘The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013’.

“The budget has been reduced from Rs30 million (in first year) to Rs1 million in the financial years 2015-16 and 2016-17,” according to Ahmed Raza, Information Commissioner, who spoke during two training workshops on ‘The role and responsibilities of public information officers.’ The workshops were organised by the Punjab Information Commission (PIC) in Sahiwal and Pakpattan in the last two days.

As a resource person, the information commissioner said there’s a lack of political commitment on part of the PML-N government and “some elements in the provincial and federal bureaucracy don’t want to share information with the citizens.”

Thanks to reduction in the budget, he said, the commission had failed to recruit staff against 43 vacant posts during the last more than two years. “There are not more than five to six personnel working in the PIC and three of them are information commissioners,” Mr Raza said.

Zahid Abdullah, National Coordinator, Coalition on Right to Information, told Dawn that the law had been passed in 2013 but the Punjab government had failed to frame rules to implement it and “this is the main hindrance to provision of information to ordinary citizens.”

Ahmed Raza, while speaking to this correspondent, said the PIC could not function without proper allocation of budget.

The Punjab government had promised that a high-tech IT centre would be developed and online complaint system integrated like the one in KP but not a single IT expert had been appointed in the commission, he said.

Sources said more than 600 complaints were pending with the PIC.

Dr Mirza Moeen, a workshop participant, said no concept of transparency could be implemented in governance until citizens were given right to ask questions from public departments.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2017

Public participation in budget making urged

PESHAWAR: Speakers at a seminar on the right to information have said public participation in budget making process and transparency in the utilisation of allocated funds is vital for judicious utilisation of public funds.

The seminar on ‘Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 and Budget Transparency’ was jointly organised by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission and Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, (CPDI).

The speakers said the citizens are not involved in the mandatory consultative process to finalise district government budget. Furthermore, the speakers added, the district public bodies do not share information through own websites about allocated and utilised budget on regular basis.

Azmat Hanif Orakzai, Chief Information Commissioner, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission (RTIC), said all public bodies in the province are legally bound under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 to proactively share information about their allocated and utilised budget on regular basis with citizens through websites.

He said that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 was enacted to change the culture of secrecy in the bureaucracy.The provincial government should allocate funds for public bodies for the proactive disclosure of information in the budget as envisaged in the law.

Member National Assembly (MNA) Sajid Nawaz said as to how could citizens be involved in budget making process at the district level when there was little information about different stages of budget making process.

He said the budget timelines were not followed during the budget making process. He also said as mentioned in the budget rules, it is duty of head of public bodies to involve stakeholders in budget making process.

The legislator said that Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had started preparing citizen budget documents so that citizens could understand budget issues. He also said that if public bodies start providing information in proactive manner, citizens will not have to request information.

Additional Secretary, Local Government Department, Barkatullah Khan said that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 was promoting culture of transparency in government departments.

The Need to Repeal Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005

Why is effective right to information law important for good governance? It is so because it enables citizens and journalists to get certified information and copies of records available with public bodies as a right and not as a favor of public officials. Furthermore, an effective right to information law allows citizens and journalists to get information from public bodies on topics and timing of their own choosing. In the absence of a right to information law, public bodies share only that information that they deem fit to disclose and on the time of their own choosing. Therefore, a good right to information law is a prerequisite for accountability of public officials and elected representatives.
Citizens of Pakistan have constitutional right of access to information held by public bodies by the virtue of 18th Amendment in the constitution. Article 19-A says: “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”. The significance of the constitutionality of this right can be gauged from the fact that both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 and the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 refer to Article 19-A in their preambles and meet standards of effective right to information legislation. However, Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 falls well short of meeting these standards. A right to information law meets these standards when it ensures maximum disclosure, minimal exemptions, obligation for proactive disclosure, process to facilitate access to information, minimum cost for the requested information, and disclosure taking precedence over exemption and assisting the requesters. ‘Information’ is not defined, the list of exempted information is vague, there is no harm test, and the process of access to information held by public bodies is neither cost-effective nor easy. More importantly, instead of establishing independent and autonomous commissions, the role of appellate body has been entrusted to Ombudsman. That is why empirical data collected over the years by using Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 also supports assertion of the right to information activists in the country that it is a highly ineffective law.
On the other hand, KPK and Punjab right to information laws meet standards of right to information legislation. ‘Information’ is clearly defined, list of exempted information clear and precise, process of submitting information requests is both easy and cost-effective and independent and autonomous commissions have been established with powers to get these laws implemented. As a result, civil society groups, citizens and journalists are using these laws in greater frequency than Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005, Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006 and Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002. Already, journalists have contributed excellent investigative stories using these laws and citizens have successfully used these laws for the attainment of their rights.
There is movement in the country to ensure greater level of public accountability through right to information legislation. Federal cabinet has drafted Right of Access to Information Bill 2016 which is better than Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 but not as good as Right to Information Bill 2016 approved by Senate Standing Committee on Information and broadcasting which is meets standards of effective right to information legislation.
Sindh government has also approved Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Bill 2016 to repeal Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006. Balochistan government needs to follow the suit of federal and Sindh governments and repeal Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 and replace it with effective law so that there is greater level of public participation in running the affairs of the province.
Writer is author and a rights activist.
Email: zahid@cpdi-pakistan.org Twitter:@XahidAbdullah

RTI not at odds with national security: CRIT

ISLAMABAD: It seems there is relative lack of understanding about the purpose of right to information legislation in government circles as demonstrated by the interior minister on Sunday when he said that no one will be allowed to hide behind the Right to Information Act.

This was stated in a press release issued by Coalition on Right to Information, (CRTI) a consortium of 48 civil society organisations working to protect and promote citizens’ right to information in the country.

Effective right to information laws not only facilitate easy and cost-effective access to information held by public bodies but also protect privileged and sensitive information from disclosure.

That is why independent and autonomous information commissions are established under right to information laws to ensure that information likely to cause damage to the national security, privacy of individuals, economic interests and other such matters is protected from disclosure.

Moreover, information commissions ensure that information is disclosed only in public interest. It is unfortunate that the federal government has not empowered proposed Pakistan Information Commission, to be established under Right of Access to Information Bill, 2016, to ensure that sensitive information is protected and information pertaining to matters of public importance is shared with citizens and journalists in public interest.

The CRTI urges the federal government to empower proposed Pakistan Information Commission with regard to ensuring disclosure of information in matters of public interest and protecting sensitive information.

CHARSADDA: Inspector General of Police Nasir Durrani said on Thursday the establishment of a model police station in the province reflected the real change in thinking, behaviour and priorities of the police. The inspector general of police (IGP) said this in his address on the occasion of the inaugural ceremony of Model Police Station Sardheri here. Elected representatives, including MNA Maulana Syed Gohar Shah, District Nazim Fahad Riaz, elite of the area, and high ranking civil and police officers attended the function. The IGP pointed out that establishment of Model Police Station was the need of the hour.

Govt urged to empower information commission

ISLAMABAD: The Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI) on Thursday said that government circles lacked understanding about the purpose of ‘right to information legislation’.

In response to a statement by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the CRTI, a consortium of 48 civil society organisations working to protect and promote citizens’ right to information, observed: “It seems there is relative lack of understanding about the purpose of right to information legislation in government circles as demonstrated by the interior minister on Sunday when he said that no one will be allowed to hide behind Right to Information Act.”

The interior minister during his news conference last week on the issue of alleged security leaks in a news story published in Dawn had said: “It is a national security issue and no one should hide behind the right to protect the source.” He said that “now the reporter is the only best source”.

The CRTI urged the government to empower the proposed Pakistan Information Commission with regard to ensuring disclosure of information in matters of public interest and protecting sensitive information. It believed that effective right to information laws not only facilitated easy and cost-effective access to information held by public bodies but also protected privileged and sensitive information from disclosure.

“That is why independent and autonomous information commissions are established under right to information laws to ensure that information likely to cause damage to national security, privacy of individuals, economic interests and other such matters is protected from disclosure,” the CRTI statement said.

Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2016

Tale of two bills

ALTHOUGH citizens are constitutionally guaranteed access to information held by the government in matters of public importance, it seems that the centre, in cahoots with the bureaucracy, seeks to ensure through legislation that people remain clueless about critical information.

The Right of Access to Information (RAI) and the Right to Information (RTI) bills, approved by the federal cabinet and Senate respectively, provide interesting insights into how Pakistan’s legislation is carried out. A comparative analysis shows how the Senate’s bill, developed by politicians in consultation with experts, is far better than the cabinet’s bill, developed in consultation with the federal bureaucracy.

Sharing as much information in the public’s interest as possible and protecting sensitive information from disclosure are not mutually exclusive.


One bill upholds the right to know; the other to suppress it.


However, the RAI bill sacrifices principles of public interest in favour of perceived notions about national interest. Ironically, the bill is modelled on the structurally flawed and ineffective Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002, which it seeks to repeal.

In fact, the bill is so flawed that it is better understood as legislation seeking to privilege and protect information rather than to facilitate citizens accessing it. Whereas the RTI bill contains one clearly defined short list of exempted information and declares the rest as public information, the RAI bill contains three lists.

The first list contains a limited number of records to be shared and the second contains records given blanket exemption from disclosure. The third list contains exceptions under which public bodies could deny access to requested data.

A key principle of effective right to information legislation is that information should be shared if its disclosure outweighs possible harm. For this, effective laws empower commissions to apply ‘harm tests’ and see the exempted information through the prism of public interest.

The RAI bill, however, empowers the government to give blanket exemptions to any record it deems unfit for disclosure. In contrast, the proposed Pakistan Information Commission is not empowered to instruct public agencies to disclose information to the public. In this scheme of things, the likely harm to national interest, as perceived by public officials, will always trump the right of citizens to access information of public importance.

It goes to the credit of members of the Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting that they not only developed comprehensive legislation through public consultation but were also able to reach political consensus on the unanimously approved RTI bill. Meanwhile, the government entrusted the task of preparing the draft RAI bill to the bureaucracy and, as a result, there was no public consultation on an issue as important as this.

Furthermore, there is no longer political consensus on this issue; Senator Farhatullah Babar has said that the RAI bill will be opposed in the Senate. It is unfortunate that the federal government has decided to sacrifice political consensus on RTI legislation at the altar of the whims and wishes of federal bureaucracy.

In his judgement on ‘memogate’, then Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja wrote: “Major events in our history in the past six decades since 1947 have included the dismemberment of the country in 1971 and the murder of one incumbent and one former prime minister of Pakistan. We have witnessed the extraordinary case of those in the seats of governance in December 1971 informing us that all was going well in East Pakistan even after the surrender of forces in Dhaka.

“The results of probes into such events have almost invariably been withheld from the people of Pakistan or, at times, selectively disclosed. The people in quest of the truth have mostly been left with conjectures, rumours and half truths. Concealment of information has, in turn, led to a distorted history of the country and to a destabilising division in the polity.”

If the RTI bill is enacted into law, it will represent a paradigm shift — Pakistan’s citizens will finally be able to access information of public importance hitherto denied to them.

On the other hand, if the RAI bill gets through both houses of parliament, things will remain the same and citizens will have to stay contented with conjectures and half-truths.

If the federal government is at all serious about facilitating its citizens’ right to access information, it ought to adopt the Senate’s RTI bill.

The will of the people is manifested in legislation through laws enacted by their elected representatives and not by laws drafted by bureaucrats.

The writer is a rights activist.

Dawn