CPDI urges Sindh govt to set up consumer courts

KARACHI: The Sindh Government has so far failed to meet its legal obligation regarding the establishment of consumer courts in the province, said Amer Ejaz, Executive Director, Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI)

According to a press release, he said that the residents of Sindh have no legal forum to resort to if any enterprise violates their rights as a consumer.

Urging the Sindh government to establish the consumer courts at the earliest, Ejaz said once the consumer courts are established in all the districts of the province, they would punish shopkeepers involved in specific violation with regard to the prices, quality and quantity, leading to a relatively friendlier environment for the consumers.

He stated that the Sindh Consumer Protection Act, 2014 was enacted as a law in February 2015, but the government has failed to establish the consumers’ courts, while on the other hand, the other provinces have already established consumer courts that are now dealing with consumer problems according to the law of the land.

The CPDI executive director further said that the consumer courts could protect the citizens from fraud, eradicate corruption and help in creating a consumer-friendly environment in the province.

The government, he added, was supposed to establish district and sessions courts in all districts of the province to solve the problems of the consumers as per the Sindh Consumer Protection Act.

General consumer issues can be directly taken to the consumer courts, which can summon the vendors.

The consumers will only have to write an application to the court; they will not need to hire an advocate to plead their case, he added.

Under the food authority, commissioner of every division in Sindh will depute deputy commissioners who will further check prices, quality of general items; if something is found defective or expired, they would impose fine on the vendor and send the cases to the consumers’ court.

CPDI urges Sindh govt to set up consumer courts

Call for introducing RTI law in AJK

MUZAFFARABAD:  While most provinces and regions of Pakistan have enacted right to information laws, Azad Jammu and Kashmir is among the few regions which have yet to introduce such a law.

In this regard, the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) conducted the first-ever introductory session on the need and significance of the right to information (RTI) laws for government officials and media of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

While presiding over the session, Secretary Information Mansoor Qadir Dar appreciated the initiative to enhance the capacity of officials and journalists. 

He added that there was no standard operating procedure in AJK for a citizen to get information from government departments. However, he urged all to work together to devise a legislation on RTI in AJK.

AJK Law Department Section officer Muhammad Nawaz stated that their department has drafted a bill on RTI which has been pending before the Parliament for years but has not received any attention from lawmakers.

During the session, participants were briefed about their constitutional right to know what the government was doing while the importance of enacting an RTI law in AJK was crucial for ensuring the transparent working of government departments.

AJK DGPR Raja Azhar Iqbal proposed holding a series of sessions to get the RTI legislation off the ground.

“Like other regions of Pakistan, AJK should also enact RTI law to promote a culture of public participation in government affairs. The government of AJK should prioritise the legislation on RTI to protect citizen’s fundamental right to know,” stressed CPDI Executive Director Amer Ejaz.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2017.

https://tribune.com.pk/story/1588154/1-call-introducing-rti-law-ajk/

Above the law

There are certain areas under the law which are beyond the information seekers

 
Above the law
Exemptions mentioned in the right to information acts of the provinces and the federal government are questionable for making important information inaccessible, experts say.

While KP, Punjab, Sindh and the federal government have enacted their specific right to information laws over the last few years, Balochistan has the same old Balochistan Freedom of Information Act (FOI), 2005.

The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013, for example, says, “A public information officer may refuse an application for access to information where disclosure of the information shall or is likely to cause harm to — (a) national defence or security, public order or international relations of Pakistan, (b) a legitimate privacy interest, unless the person concerned has consented to disclosure of the information; (c) the protection of legally privileged information or of the rules relating to breach of confidence; (d) the legitimate commercial interests of a public body or a third party, including information subject to third party intellectual property rights; and (e) the life, health or safety of any person,” among a few others.

Zahra believes though that the exemptions in RTI laws in Punjab, KP, and Sindh are comparatively reasonable because the lists are narrowly drawn.

Do the exemptions serve the purpose of providing important information to ordinary citizens? “If the primary objective of a law is to promote access to government-held information to citizens then exemptions on categories of information accessible negate the concept and defeat the purpose of the exercise,” says Adnan Rehmat, senior media analyst.

The Balochistan Freedom of Information Act, 2005, for instance, is cited as being even worse when it comes to exemptions in the way of seeking information. In the same way, the federal government’s Right of Access to Information Act 2017 also bars access to the official record of armed forces, defence installations, details of individuals’ bank accounts, defence, and issues of national security, etc. Analysts believe the federal Right of Access to Information Act 2017 is as restrictive as the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 that it repeals.

“The FOI in Balochistan is not clear as to what is accessible and what is not. In the same way, the federal law on the right to information passed in October 2017 does not offer much as it has three lists,” says Moonis Kainat Zahra, Project Manager, Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI).

Read also: Editorial

“Under the federal law on RTI, information for entries under the first list is accessible, information under the second category is not to be provided, while information for subjects under the third list is conditional upon certain things. This leaves people confused,” she explains.

Zahra believes though that the exemptions in RTI laws in Punjab, KP, and Sindh are comparatively reasonable because the lists are narrowly drawn. “The exemptions mentioned in laws of the three provinces appear to be rather clear on paper,” she mentions but is quick to add, “On the ground though, people still face a lot of difficulties, such as delays and refusals in KP and Punjab.”

Under the federal law on RTI, the minister in-charge of a concerned government department can declare any information classified. “The law authorises a minister to refuse any information, irrespective of it being classified or available. This is questionable. It should be for the commission to decide,” she believes.

Adnan Rehmat agrees, “The trick is to minimise exemptions based on defining an exemption. The best touchstone for outlining the parameters of any exemption is ‘public good’. Any information that is required by citizens to make informed decisions on issues that can help them enforce their fundamental rights cannot be exempt from access,” he says, adding, “Any person, office or function financed with taxpayer’s money should not be exempted.”

Chapter four of CPDI’s country briefing paper on right to information in Pakistan, titled, “Countering Secrecy Narrative through RTI,” says “The key pillars of secrecy narrative in the country like national security, threat to safety of public officials, privacy of elected representatives and public officials and damage to country’s relations with other countries need to be seen in relationship with public interest.”

Rehmat explains public interest even further, “The no-harm principle determines the nature of exemption. Even then, in the context of access to information, no exemption comes with absolutes. All exemptions, however limited, must come qualified — the right to know is premised on the assurance of utility.” He says the information that cannot be used “for the benefit of public is merely a restriction designed to obfuscate, not empower”.

Resource for journalists

Most journalists are unaware of the existence and potential of the law for good journalism

 
Resource for journalists

According to a survey conducted in 2016 by Data Stories and Journalism Pakistan, nearly 76 per cent of the respondents said that they had never used the right to information (RTI) laws to access data, while over 97 per cent believed that official data was not easily available in the country.

Khalid Khattak, senior reporter with The News, and founder of Data Stories, believes that the use of RTI still remains low, at least in the Punjab. “It’s a mix of reasons,” he says. “Not only are journalists unaware that laws exist which empower them to access public information, but key posts of Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioner at the Punjab Information Commission (PIC) have both been lying vacant for months.

These vacant posts have created a gap in the process of RTI, as it is the PIC which intervenes to help get information for journalists and other individuals in case of non-compliance of the public body from whom information has been sought. Still, Khattak says that prior to the posts becoming vacant, he had used the RTI numerous times successfully.

However, Khattak is a minority. Numerous journalists and reporters that I spoke to said that although they have heard of the RTI, they haven’t used it.

Across the border in India, the use of RTI by journalists is widespread. “The biggest proof of its success is that many RTI activists have been killed,” says Shivam Vij, a journalist based in Delhi.

In Islamabad, there is the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), and one of the things they do is conduct workshops across the country to create awareness on RTI and help journalists and others to submit requests for information.

Syed Raza Ali, who is the coordinator, says that “the ratio of information sharing has gone down in Punjab.” Apart from the posts lying vacant, Raza says that numerous public bodies have not installed public information officers, something mandated by law. The PIOs are supposed to provide information requested via the RTI. Raza says that after the local bodies elections, posts were revised and new notifications were to be issued, but that never happened.

Still, via the CPDI, between 300 and 400 information requests were made during 2017, and according to Raza, there has been minimal response.

Read also: Common concern

On the face of it, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seems to have a better RTI set up in place. The commission is fully manned, and public bodies have information officers in place. However, according to Iftikhar Firdous, from The Express Tribune, all is not well there either.

“Information that benefits the department (from whom it is being gained) is readily available,” he says. “But things that should be public knowledge yet go against the sarkari mindset are difficult to retrieve.” Firdous reveals that RTIs have been submitted on things as basic as asking how much money was donor funded into government departments, and there has been no reply in over a year.

Another problem in KP is the fact that although there are people in place, the law is lacking. Issues such as the mechanism to fine PIOs who deny information to individuals still remain unresolved. At the same time, the law does not bind the government to appoint new information commissioners when the incumbent commissioners complete their tenure.

And importantly, the fact that the RTI law does not extend to the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA). “The request sent by the KP Home and Tribal Affairs department for extending the RTI law to PATA has been waiting for the President’s approval for more than two years,” Firdous reveals.

The other two provinces have completely different challenges when it comes to RTI. The Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2016 was approved in March 2017, following which the Sindh Information Commission was to be formed within 60 days, to oversee the implementation of the law. The commission has still not been formed.

“The response rate to RTI is zero,” says Ali. And the case is no better in Balochistan. Under the prevailing law in the province, the main appellate is the provincial ombudsman who has no authority to impose fines on non-compliance to RTI requests.

While the right to information is fundamental for journalists, it is equally important for other sections of society, including rights groups. Bytes for All is a digital rights and advocacy group based in Islamabad. Their experience with RTI is telling.

“67 requests, and zero replies,” says Shahzad Ahmed, the country director, of Bytes for All. “We did have one reply, but it doesn’t count, because the information provided had nothing to do with what we had asked for.” To make matters worse, in the aftermath of one of their requests, the group received a threatening email, asking them the reasons for wanting the information requests.

Across the border in India, the use of RTI by journalists is widespread. “The biggest proof of its success is that many RTI activists have been killed,” says Shivam Vij, a journalist based in Delhi. “However, the deaths have not slowed down its use at all.”

Vij says that while the bureaucracy is very opposed to RTI and does its best to not give information, the law is strong, so it works somewhat. He adds that whenever there has been an attempt to undermine RTI, activists have rallied against the move. “RTI happened through social movements,” he says.

Here in Pakistan, however, the awareness that RTI laws even exist remains its number one problem.

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/resource-journalists

Case study

“No information even after four months” Riaz Khan, a mediaperson based in Peshawar, submitted an …

 
Case study

“No information even after four months”

Riaz Khan, a mediaperson based in Peshawar, submitted an application four months ago, asking for the salaries, incentives for officials and funding for various projects of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Oil and Gas Company Limited (KPOGCL). He is yet to get the information.

“I submitted the application in August. After waiting for two months, I filed an application to the Information Commissioner,” says Riaz Khan. “The officials of the KPOGCL appeared before the Commissioner and argued that the required information was exempted from RTI. The Commissioner, however, told the officials that the required information was not exempted and directed to provide it immediately.”

“I am yet to get the information. The Commissioner has issued notice to the department. Let’s see how they respond to it,” he adds.

Khan submitted another application to the Finance Department of the KP government on November 11 to know about the projects under the Annual Development Programme and Chief Minister’s Special Initiative in Mardan, Charsadda, Nowshera, Swabi and Dera Ismail Khan since 2013. “The application was returned to me after a few days because I had not attached with it a copy of my CNIC. I resubmitted the application with the required documents on November 20 and now am waiting for it. The department is required to provide the information within 15 days under the RTI Act,” he says.

Javed2

“Information provided within ten days”

The Center for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA), a Peshawar-based organisation, submitted 123 applications under the RTI to different provincial government departments and 17 districts all over the province. The information the organisation required was mostly related to the office of the deputy commissioners, district police officers, district health officers and district education officers.

“We have submitted 123 requests under the RTI to 17 district administrations and five departments of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government during the last few months,” informs Masood Malik, Programme Manager CGPA.

“Out of all the submitted 123 applications, we were provided information on 26 applications by the concerned departments within ten working days.  These applications were mainly on budget, allocation of funds and information for the welfare of the public,” Malik adds.

Read also: Above the law

The CGPA received the required information within 20 working days on 31 occasions. Similarly, on 12 occasions the information was provided after 20 days.

“We have submitted 54 complaints with the RTI Commissioner during the last many months in cases where we were not given the required information by the concerned departments,” informs Malik.

Under the RTI Act, a fine may be imposed on a department if it fails to provide the information in prescribed time.

“We have trained the local communities in Mardan and other districts on the RTI so they can get information about the projects being carried out in their areas. The local community recently submitted an application to know about the funds being allocated for 30 tubewells in the Mardan district,” says Anwar Khan, executive director of the CGPA.

Javed Aziz

“Law is implemented”

The Executive District Officer (EDO) Education Vehari was penalised for denying information requested by an applicant, says Syed Raza Ali Shah, Senior Programme Officer at CPDI. “A teacher, Arif Noor of Government Islamia High School, Vehari had requested for seniority list of teachers and a copy of inquiry report against him under the RTI law but the EDO did not respond.

“Noor attended a training session conducted by CPDI in 2014 and was guided by the organisation on how to use RTI laws for his benefit. He was concerned about his promotion and losing out to other aspirants so he requested for the seniority list,” Shah informs. The EDO initiated an inquiry against him and did not provide the seniority list. Instead, he initiated an inquiry against Noor perhaps to punish him for questioning him, he adds.

Noor approached CPDI for help. “We helped him pursue his case and take the complaint to the Punjab Information Commission formed under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013.” The court issued repeated orders but the EDO remained defiant and did not provide the required the information.

“So, the commission issued orders to deduct two months’ salary of the EDO and ordered the concerned department to take action against him. The EDO had to face an inquiry and was transferred from the district as well. The applicant received the required information.”

But unfortunately, he says, “the commission is dormant because all three information commissioners have retired after completion of their three-year tenure and new ones are yet to be appointed.”

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/case-study

Common concern

People are gradually coming to know about the laws and having their first experiences with the process of acquiring information

 
Common concern

The citizens’ right to information has been secured in the Constitution of Pakistan which empowers them to make governments accountable. Under the Right to Information (RTI) laws citizens can ask the government about any information that they consider important and in the public interest.

Are the citizens aware of and adequately benefitting from these laws? Who can benefit from RTI laws and how many are actually using these?

On losing a contract, Jehanzeb Khan (not his real name), a government contractor in Lahore, was advised by the staff of the concerned department to seek information about the particulars of the successful bidder, his experience and track record, under the Punjab RTI law. The purpose was to challenge the award of the contract if it was against the rules. After some contemplation, though, Khan decided against it.

What stopped him from doing this was that he did not want to face the wrath of the influential officers because he did not want to be sidelined for future contracts or get his outstanding payments delayed. However, the good thing was that he came to know about the existence of these laws.

There are examples where the RTI requests facilitated by CPDI have led to the disclosure that 284 health units in Punjab were without doctors and 2,000 schools without head teachers. The request about schools was filed by Khalid Khattak, a journalist from Lahore, and also taken up by the CPDI.

Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, former information commissioner, Punjab, says government departments are a good source for spreading awareness about RTI laws among the masses “though the pace is quite slow”. Ali informs that the Punjab Information Commission (PIC), during its three-year tenure, had trained 1,000 government officers on RTI laws and issued instructions on more than 4,000 complaints it received.

The requests accommodated by the departments and answered accordingly are in addition to these. “When there is so much activity within the government sector the word will get out to the masses,” says Ali.

He says, during the last three years a large number of teachers from educational institutions like UET, PU and GCU sought information about the appointment and promotion procedures and details of degrees, experience, education, etc, of successful candidates. Then there were civil servants who sought details of inquiry reports against them or their colleagues. A large number of complaints were regarding service matters as relevant information may help applicants pursue their cases.

Read also: Case study

Sarmad Ali, a Lahore-based lawyer, is a regular filer of RTI requests. He believes a lot of burden on high courts can be reduced if lawyers start invoking RTI laws to get access to FIRs and supplementary statements in criminal cases as these are subject cases of many writ petitions. “Though police is reluctant to share these, a PIC decision declaring them public documents is already there.”

Similarly, he says, “documents procured through RTI requests can help lawyers strengthen their cases in civil and trial courts but they do not use these frequently.”

A recent request made by Sarmad Ali to the Principal Information Officers (PIOs) of 25 public sector universities in Punjab was about the criteria they had adopted to hire visiting faculty. All of them replied they were following the criteria set by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) but he found out that many visiting faculty members were engaged in sheer violation of rules. He has also filed a request with the Hazara University, KP, “seeking details about their sports budget and whether they had used it properly or not.”

About the general use of RTI laws, Syed Raza Ali Shah, Senior Programme Officer, Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), thinks its use is increasing gradually. He says, “the response to RTI in Balochistan, Sindh and the federal government is far from satisfactory. It is better in KP and Punjab. This is because only these two provinces have had information commissions that helped people get information.”

Under the new laws, the federal and Sindh governments are supposed to form information commissions but they have not done that. “We have filed requests with different governments but we haven’t ever received a response from Balochistan. It’s time they get rid of their archaic RTI law,” says Shah.

A boy in KP, Shah says, applied for a job and appeared in the written test but later found that the job had been advertised again. He filed an RTI request to get the results of the test and the answer sheet he had used. The concerned department refused to accommodate him but on the orders of the KP Information Commission, his demand was fulfilled and it was revealed that he had stood first in the exams. He approached the Peshawar High Court (PHC) with the documents and ultimately got that job.”

There are examples where the RTI requests facilitated by CPDI have led to the disclosure that 284 health units in Punjab were without doctors and 2,000 schools without head teachers. The request about schools was filed by Khalid Khattak, a journalist from Lahore, and also taken up by the CPDI.

The CPDI is holding dialogue with the governments of Balochistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan. “The agenda is how to come up with citizens-friendly RTI laws. Street theatres, awareness talks, seminars, community outreach programmes are also being used to create awareness about RTI laws in different parts of the country,” Shah says.

Azmat Hanif Orakzai, Chief Information Commissioner, KP is quite upbeat about the use of RTI law in the province. He says as per their database, around 10,000 citizens have filed requests since 2014, of which 7000 have been answered by the concerned departments. Of the remaining 3,000 brought to the commission, 2,500 have been disposed of by the commission while 500 are being heard.

Orakzai says a major benefit is that government departments have become cautious whereas the citizens are feeling empowered. “There have been a lot of requests about departmental budgets, expenditures, grant of permits/contracts, appointments and so on. The KP government is promoting transparency. The introduction of a law protecting whistleblowers is a proof of this.”