PIC asked Registrar, The Women University, Multan to share the details of recent recruitment of Admin Officer

Jhang: The Punjab Information Commission (PIC) has issued notice against the Registrar, The Women University, Multan to share information about recent recruitment of “Admin Officer”.

According to Source a Right to Information (RTI) activist from Centre for Peace and Development Initiative (CPDI) from Jhang district, Raza Ali, filed an information request with Registrar, The Women University Multan seeking information about recent recruitment of Admin Officer in the University by using The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 on March 21, 2016.

The Applicant requested information regarding recruitment of admin officer i.e. list of candidates, criteria of the selection, copies of educational documents, professional certificates, list of members who were part of interview panel committee and copies of interview marks sheets of selected candidates. Assistant registrar shared the incomplete information and stated some requisition fall exempted under section 13 of The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013.

However, the applicant filed complaint to PIC for incomplete information on March 29, 2016. The commission reviewed the complained and issued notice to registrar to share the requested information as soon as possible not later than April 20, 2016.

The Commission also directed the body to implement sections 4 and 7 of the Act, post contact details of public information officers on the website, and establish a mechanism to decide all pending or future complaints within the timeframe prescribed in section 10 of the Act. Mr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ali, Information Commissioner said that it is legal right of any citizen of a legal person to access information from public bodies. Any violation of the Law or delay of can result in penalties as per section 15 or 16 of the Act.

IRA News

Govt slated for delaying enactment right to information law

ISLAMABAD: Since January 16, 2016 when federal government announced formation of special committee to review right to information bill approved by Senate Committee on Information and Broadcasting on July 15, 2014, there is no word about deliberations or recommendations of this committee.

PML-N government has been delaying the enactment of right to information law on one pretext or the other, says a press release on Tuesday. This time around, PML-N government has raised the bogey of security as a delaying tactics. Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) believes the bill approved by the Senate committee contains sufficient safeguards to protect any type of sensitive information from disclosure.

In fact, this bill has been praised by local and international right to information experts as one of the best laws in the world. The delay in the enactment of right to information law for federal public bodies has raised serious questions about federal government commitment to transparency. This is especially ironic given the fact that PML-N committed in Charter of Democracy signed on May 14, 2006 that it will enact right to information law and repeal Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002.

It is unfortunate that PML-N government is almost half way through its tenure and has failed to table right to information bill unanimously approved by Senate Committee on Information and Broadcasting. The CPDI urges federal government to table right to information bill without further delay.

Right to information is constitutional right of Pakistanis and it is included in the chapter of fundamental rights in the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It is duty of federal government to put in place an easy and cost effective mechanism so that citizens can, exercising their right to information, know how their federal government is putting to use national resources by getting certified information from public bodies. Tall transparency claims are not good enough and federal government should demonstrate its commitment to transparency by enacting right to information law.

Right to information and superior judiciary

The court judgements that say public has a ‘right to know’ about everything done by public functionaries.It is largely believed that the constitutional right to information was accorded when Article 19-A was inserted into the constitution through 18th Amendment in 2010. The 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.”

There is no denying the fact that Article 19-A specifically guarantees the right to information and this right is declared a fundamental right. However, there have been judgements by superior judiciary wherein citizens’ right to information has been upheld and protected even in pre-18th Amendment era. For example, in PLD 2008 Karachi 68], access to information has been declared as sine qua non of constitutional democracy. The judgement says that the public has a ‘right to know’ about everything done by public functionaries.

The judgement goes on to explain the reason as to why citizens should have right to information and we are told that the “responsibility of public functionaries to disclose their acts works both against corruption and oppression”. The judgement goes on to affirm principle of maximum disclosure by saying that “as a rule information should be disclosed and only as an exception privilege should be claimed on justifiable grounds.”

Again, in PLD 1993 SC 746), Supreme Court not only declared it a duty of the government to disseminate information but provide pertinent reasons as to why the government should disseminate information. The apex court considers access to information vital to enable citizens “to adjudge the conduct of those who are in office and the wisdom and follies of their policies”.

After the specific recognition of right to information through the insertion of Article 19-A through 18th Amendment, there have been at least two excellent judgements in which superior judiciary has deliberated upon right to information by juxtaposing different sections of Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 with Article 19-A.

In a case, Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja made some pertinent observations on right to information with reference to the running of affairs of the country. He laments that “ever since the independence of the country in 1947, 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 a destabilising division in the polity.” Highlighting the significance of Article 19-A, he says that it has “enabled every citizen to become independent of power centres which, heretofore, have been in control of information on matters of public importance.”

Commenting on the “intrinsic worth of information as a stand-alone fundamental right”, he says that the “very essence of a democratic dispensation is informed choice.” Elaborating on the value of informed choice in the context of democratic set-up, he says that it is through informed choices that people “acquire the ability to reward or punish their elected representatives or aspirants to elected office, when it is time for the people to exercise their choice.” This line of reasoning leads him to conclude that information on matters of public importance is “foundational bedrock of representative democracy and the accountability of chosen representatives of the people.”

Civil society groups have been demanding the repeal of Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 because it is restrictive in nature and limited in scope apart from other various short-comings. Analysing Section 3 of the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja seems to be on the same page with civil society. He brings to the fore its restrictive nature by juxtaposing with Article 19-A and concludes that “the Constitutional right is much broader and more assertive than the statutory right which by its own terms is restricted to disclosure of official record only.”

The Lahore High Court gave a landmark judgement with far reaching implications on January 18, 2016 in the case of Waheed Shahzad Butt versus The Federation of Pakistan. The judgement has put paid to the practise of filing representations with the President of Pakistan by public bodies against the decisions of Federal Ombudsman and Federal Tax Ombudsman, appellate bodies under Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002. The judgement says that the Tax Ombudsman passes a ‘decision’ on the complaint of an aggrieved person under the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 while Tax Ombudsman makes merely a ‘recommendation’ under the jurisdiction of the Federal Tax Ombudsman Ordinance.

The learned judge wrote: “A decision is a binding adjudication of rights and claims between two or more persons whereas recommendation denotes something in the nature of a suggestion. It is, therefore, held that the President had no jurisdiction to entertain and pass a decision on the representation filed by the Board against the decision of the Tax Ombudsman”. This judgement also highlights shortcomings in Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002. The learned judge observes that exclusions contained in section 8 of the FOI Ordinance are quite loosely worded, open-ended and in abstract form. There is no ‘criteria’ in Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 on which the “application of a requester may be turned down”.

What is remarkable in this judgement is that public bodies will not be able to claim blanket exemption when information is requested under FOIO 2002. The judgement says that if a public body claims to exclude any information from disclosure, it will have to “justify/demonstrate that that stance is supported (with sufficient particulars and by demonstrable factual basis) by weighing of the relevant aspects of the public interest.”

It would be stating the obvious to say there exists dichotomy between judicial pronouncements on the significance of citizens’ right to information with regard to ensuring public accountability and greater public participation in the affairs of governance and the lacklustre performance of political parties in putting in place mechanisms by enacting right to information laws so that citizens could exercise their right to information.

On January 16, 2016, citizens were told that the PML-N government has constituted a special committee to review draft right to information bill unanimously approved by Senate Committee on Information and Broadcasting on July 15, 2014 in the light of ‘changing security situation’. The PML-N is half way through its tenure and it is high time it stops obfuscation on constitutionally guaranteed fundamental human right of the citizens and makes good on its various public pledges and documented commitment in Charter of Democracy to repeal Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 by tabling right to information bill in the Parliament.

Countering the secrecy narrative

No matter who has been at the helm of affairs — be it military dictators or democratically elected politicians — secrecy has been the rule and the disclosure of information an exception throughout the history of Pakistan. The disconnect between state institutions and citizens has its roots in this secretive way of running the affairs of the country. This disconnect was a prerequisite for putting in place a coercive relationship between the colonists and the natives through different law, rules and regulations, as was the case in the colonial era. After all, colonists were here to subjugate and not to serve, extract resources rather than develop human capital.

However, even after Independence, successive governments conveniently benefited from the colonial legal and administrative regime that encourages and protects the secretive functioning of public bodies and dispensation of official business behind closed doors. Instead of changing the colonial era patron-client relationship between the rulers and the people, by changing the secrecy narrative, the ruling elite has further strengthened it as it helps to project them as saviours when they toss crumbs at the masses while continuing to be the principal beneficiaries of the system. The key pillars of the secrecy narrative in the country, such as national security, a threat to the safety of public officials, the privacy of elected representatives and the damage done to the country’s foreign relations by public officials, need to be seen in line with public interest. Furthermore, a transparency narrative that gives primacy to public good without compromising the safety and privacy of the individuals and the security needs of the state, needs to be strengthened.

Information commissions established under the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act of 2013 and the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act of 2013, can play a pivotal role in building this transparency narrative. We are in for a long haul but it is encouraging to note that a new transparency narrative countering the secrecy narrative within the bounds of the law of the land has already started emerging.

Now, public officials cannot raise the spectre of personal safety to deny access to information as was the case when access to the certified copy of the logbook of the District Coordination Officer (DCO) was requested under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act of 2013. It was maintained in the hearing before the Punjab Information Commission, that the DCO performs his duty in a sensitive area and that there will be a threat to his safety; as the logbook contains information about the past movements of the DCO, which could be used to anticipate his future movements.

In an order dated October 3, 2014, the commission said: “This argument merits consideration, as the Respondent undeniably performs certain sensitive functions and it has been argued that his past movements might be used to predict his future travels. But the point is whether, in this instance, the potential or perceived risk to life or safety of a person touches the threshold where it could be justifiably used as a ground to restrict transparency and a fundamental right to information under Article 19A of the Constitution. The Commission is of the view that the mere mention, assumption or apprehension of possible harm to life or safety of a person is not enough to claim an exception u/s 13(e) of the Act””.

In a request filed under the RTI laws of the land, public officials have been building a secrecy narrative around the supposed invasion of privacy. In the case of Mr Amer Ejaz vs Secretary, Punjab Assembly, the Punjab Information Commission in its order on January 12, 2015: “settled the issue of the attendance record of the members of the provincial assembly as personal information.” The commission said: “The requested information is about the attendance record of elected representatives who perform a public function within their constitutional mandate and are accountable to citizens. They are also compensated in the form of salary, allowances and other perks or privileges for the work they undertake and the functions they perform; whereas the attendance record provides a basis for documenting performance, processing compensation and administering legislative business all of these relate to the official or public, not their personal domain”.

While the Punjab Information Commission is trying to change the secrecy narrative by building a transparency narrative, the PML-N government has reinforced the age old-adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

On January 16, 2016, it was reported in the national media that the federal government has formed a special committee to review the draft Right to Information Bill approved by the Senate Committee on Information and Broadcasting on July 15, 2014 in the light of the ‘changing security situation’. The formation of this special committee is especially baffling given the fact that there are already adequate and strong safeguards in the bill to protect sensitive information. For example, Section 2 (vii) defines ‘national security’ and sections 18, 19 and 22 have been specifically inserted to protect the disclosure of sensitive information pertaining to international relations, the enforcement of law and national security, respectively. Furthermore, another safeguard against the disclosure of sensitive information is the proposed Pakistan Information Commission to be established under Section 29 and comprising three information commissioners drawn from the superior judiciary, lawyers’ fraternity and civil society. This commission will decide whether the disclosure of certain information will be harmful to national security or the disclosure will serve public interest. Lastly, even if the federal government is not satisfied with the decision of the Pakistan Information Commission, it would be able to file a writ petition with the superior judiciary to adjudicate on the findings of the commission.

It is extremely unfortunate that a democratically-elected government has chosen to strengthen the secrecy narrative at the expense of the transparency narrative, by raising the bogey of the ‘changing security situation’. In this context, we must keep in mind what Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

The writer is author of Disabled by Society and The Wise Man and is associated with Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives. He tweets @XahidAbdullah

 

Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th,  2016.

Express Tribune