PML-N govt fails to implement RTI law

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government is still dragging its feet on the federal Right to Information (RTI) law despite approval of the bill by the Senate Standing Committee more than two years ago.

Even 10 years ago while signing the Charter of Democracy (COD) with the Pakistan People’s Party, the PML-N had agreed to pass a law on access to information but the promise could not become reality to date. Since April 2014 when the bill was passed by the Senate Standing Committee on Information, the Minister for Information Parvaiz Rashid promised on numerous occasion to bring the bill in the next cabinet meeting but the same could not be fulfilled.

Pakistan People’s Party which failed to pass the bill during its own 5-year-tenure is urging the government to enact the law immediately. Former President and Co-Chairman of PPP Asif Ali Zardari has reiterated the call on Monday on the eve of World Press Freedom Day.

However the government does not seem to be in hurry on the issue. Talking to The News in January this year the Minister for Information Parvez Rashid had claimed the bill will be cleared in a single sitting of a five-member parliamentary committee of the ruling party.

“Since the cabinet meeting has not been taking place for a long time and the (RTI) bill was getting delayed, the prime minister decided to form a committee to consider this law. This is a way out to table the bill in Parliament as soon as possible,” said the minister.

The committee, comprising Parvaiz Rashid, Ahsan Iqbal, Anusha Rahman Khan, Irfan Siddiqui and Marriyum Aurangzeb, was supposed to formulate recommendations on the Right to Information Bill 2014.

However four months after the latest promise the committee is yet to finalise the bill. “We have held six meetings of the committee since its inception and the government is committed to introduce the bill very soon,” Maryum Orangzeb, a key member of the committee told The News. She said detail review of the bill is underway as it is being compared with similar legislation around the world.

While asked why the committee is taking so much time in finalising the bill despite its passage by the Senate Standing Committee comprising all the political parties, she said: “We are taking time because we want to come up with a bill that is acceptable to all stakeholders.”

She added that Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa RTI laws and their implementations are also being considered while finalising the federal law. Maryum said opinion is being sought from legal experts to avoid duplicate legislation. She said the Minister for Information Parvez Rashid is keen to soon table the bill in the parliament.

When asked why the committee’s deliberations on this bill are kept so secret, she said soon the people will know everything. The delay has prompted strong criticism from the opposition lawmakers and civil society. They are also criticising the government for not making the proceedings of the parliamentary committee public.

“This very bill is about freedom of information but the proceedings of the government committee are shrouded in mystery,” said Zahid Abdullah a campaigner for RTI associated with Centre for Peace and Development Initiative (CPDI).

He said the process of legislation must be kept transparent. Zahid hailed the draft law as one of the best legislations on RTI in its current shape if measured by global standards. Opposition law makers are skeptical of the government’s commitment. The Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Kamil Ali Agha has included the matter in the agenda of the committee’s meeting to be held later this week.

A member of the Committee Farhatullah Babar said the opposition is skeptical because in past 17 times the government had promised to bring the draft to the cabinet meeting but they failed each time in fulfilling their promise.

“The minister for information had promised to the information committee of the Senate more than two years ago that the bill will be presented for cabinet approval to be tabled in Parliament. However, it seems the government is not interested and wants to buy time and then pass the bill at the fade end of current term so that the rulers do not have to abide by the RTI,” he told The News.

The RTI bill, drafted in 2014 for replacing a weak legislation, Freedom of Information Ordinance (FOI) 2002, has also been sent to the international RTI experts for review who declared it the best legislation in the world if adopted. The FOI Ordinance 2002, currently in practice, received 78th position in international ranking of 2013.

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.