Right to Information Act being used as anti-graft tool

ABBOTTABAD: Speakers at a daylong dialogue on Friday said the newly-introduced Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act, 2013 was being effectively used as an anti-corruption tool.

The Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) had organised the dialogue. Around 48 participants, including members of Provincial Assembly, representatives of all the mainstream political parties, media persons and members of the civil society organisations attended the event.

CPDI Coordinator Malik Saleem Iqbal said all the countries had enacted laws to fight corruption and hold accountability of the government employees. He said the lack of trust in government entities was increasing due to corruption.

Citing the examples of the National Database and Registration Authority and the Motorway Police, he said the people trusted these departments because of their transparent dealings. He talked about some instances where government departments had been requested for information in the past, but it could not be provided as there was no legislation at the time. On the occasion, features of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act, 2013 were shared with the participants.
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CCTV footage of NA demanded by activists

ISLAMABAD: Forged attendance record of the MQM MNA, who beat a journalist in Lahore but showed presence in Islamabad, has drawn fire for the secretive National Assembly as journalists and information rights activists have asked Speaker Ayaz Sadiq to produce the video footage of the MNA to clear this mystery.

Journalists have demanded that the attendance record of all lawmakers should be made public.Neither the National Assembly has so far clarified its position on the forgery nor did the MQM take any action against the accused MNA as both promised to The News on Thursday to get back on the issue.

While the previous National Assembly earned notoriety when hoards of fake graduates were discovered as its members; some of them disqualified only when the Supreme Court took up the matter, the present assembly has added another ‘feather to its cap’ by faking their attendance records.

Electronic Media Reporters Association (EMRA) has written a letter to the NA Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq demanding the video footage of MNA Tahira Asif to establish the claim of her presence in the assembly session on the date and time she allegedly beat Radio Pakistan’s senior producer through her guards in Lahore.

Record of her cellular phone acquired by the police contradicts her claim as she was present at the venue in Lahore where the incident occurred.EMRA has also written to Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid demanding the restoration of Akmal Ghumman who was first harassed by DG Radio Samina Pervez and then suspended when he did not abandon efforts to bring the MQM MNA to justice.

The DG Radio must be directed to “stop interfering into Ghumman’s personal matter even if she cannot stand by him in this time of crisis.”Meanwhile, Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, an organisation working on Right to Information (RTI), has renewed its demand from the NA speaker to direct the publication of MNAs’ attendance record on the website.

This is not only the citizens’ right to know about the working of MNAs whose salaries as well as perks and privileges are afforded through public money, this incident of faked attendance also testifies the urgency and importance of publicising record lest somebody abuse it in collusion with the assembly staff, said Zahid Abdullah, Programme Manager of CPDI’s RTI project.

The NA Secretariat has long been refusing the RTI requests seeking attendance details despite the Federal Ombudsman’s orders to make it public. Parliaments in India and UK update attendance record of their MPs on the official websites on daily basis.

As for as EMRA’s letter to the NA speaker is concerned, it highlighted the issue of faked attendance record of MNA Tahira Asif that is “indeed a serious crime” and said that victim journalist Akmal Ghumman has initiated legal proceeding against the MNA.

Now Ghumman is being victimised and made to pass through severe mental torture by the MNA and the DG Radio Pakistan as pressurised by the MNA, reads EMRA letter.

“It is requested that the CCTV footage and the attendance record of the date mentioned may please be made available to EMRA as soon as possible so that it may help Mr Ghumman who is out to seek justice through a legal procedure not only for himself but for a common man,” the letter reads.

The CPDI has joined in condemning this act, saying that if the alleged tampering of attendance record of an MNA is true then it can easily be understood why the National Assembly Secretariat is not only jealously guarding information about the attendance record of Members of National Assembly but goes a step further and declares it personal information.

Responding to CPDI information request filed on April 6, 2012 under the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, seeking information about the attendance record of MNAs during parliamentary year 2011-12, the NA Secretariat denied access to this information on June 28, 2012, saying this information pertained to the privacy of MNAs and that this information did not pertain to matters of public importance.

If such information is proactively disclosed through website in India, the CPDI statement reads, why it cannot be made available to citizens of Pakistan?
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CPDI successfully launched website of District Government Jhelum, a step towards transparency initiated

Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, (CPDI) has successfully launched the website of District Government Jhelum. The launching ceremony was organized at office of District Coordination Officer Jhelum here on Friday. CPDI facilitated the website development process for district government Jhelum. All senior officers of District Jhelum including large number of people from media and civil society participated in the launching ceremony.

District Coordination Officer Mirza Mehmood-ul-Hassan appreciated the effort of CPDI to introduce the e-governance in Jhelum District. He urged all senior officials to designate a focal person in each department to regularly update the website of relevant department. DCO said that his vision is to facilitate all the 1.1 million citizens living in his district. He said that the website will provide updated information to citizens by getting information through a single click at their home. He further said that the training of District officials on website development and computer literacy will also be organized to ensure proper uploading of verified data on website of the district. He also encourages the citizens to visit the website www.jhelum.gop.pk to get updates about the performance of the district.

Addressing to the launching ceremony Syed Kausar Abbas, Program Manager of Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, CPDI said that CPDI has the program to develop the websites of all 36 district of Punjab. He said that CPDI is paying its one year cost for domain and hosting of website and as well as to capacitate the officials of the district through training workshops about website development and updating. Kausar Abbas said that Jhelum is the first district where CPDI has launched website among 36 districts. Three more districts will be launched by the end of January 2014. He said that the purpose of facilitating the district governments for website development is to ensure transparency in the public institutions. He said that the Government should regularly update the data on websites to increase public participation and facilitate the citizens through web-based information.

Kausar Abbas quoted that the website of Rawalpindi District is not working since 350 days. He urged the DCO Rawalpindi to immediately launch its website. He also said that it is imperative for government to facilitate the citizens through website. Citizens can also file complaints and suggestions through website. A cake cutting ceremony was also held by DCO and CPDI at the launching ceremony.

Project launched to oversee service delivery

ABBOTTABAD: A civil society organisation has launched a project in three districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that will oversee service delivery in education, health, agriculture and food sectors.

Syed Kausar Abbass, programme manager, Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), told reporters Wednesday the CPDI had identified Peshawar, Mardan and Abbottabad districts of the KP initially for overseeing the service delivery issues in sectors, which include education, health, agriculture and food.

A group of volunteers in each district will be established to oversee the performance of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government in education, health, food and agriculture. The CPDI official explained that the performance of provincial government would be monitored through the citizens to identify the loopholes in the service delivery issues. He said the provinces are autonomous, after implementation of 18th Amendment, to legislate own policies for the development of citizens.
The News Link

NA, Presidency block information

ISLAMABAD: The year 2013 was tumultuous in many ways but it witnessed positive developments in terms of Right to Information (RTI) legislation in two provinces whereas the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) set an unprecedented example of transparency by displaying vital information at its website.

However, compared to the ECP, the National Assembly, the house of elected public representatives, achieved another notorious blot by becoming obsessively secretive about the attendance record of lawmakers who claim TA/DA for attending session but are often found in talk shows instead of attending session; top leaders included. This conduct is in contrast with the Indian Parliament where attendance information of the lawmakers is daily updated on the website.

Presidency was also bracketed with the parliament as it refused to reply to the president’s expenditures on Haj that he performed together with his staff and relatives.

General elections 2013 brought with it many ‘firsts’. Included among them were electoral promises of introducing RTI laws. The PTI was vocal more than any other party and it subsequently led by first promulgating an RTI Ordinance in August this year and then passing an RTI Act from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.

Likewise, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif promised to The News before elections that RTI law will be the first to pass from Punjab Assembly if his party was voted to power. As the PML-N returned to power in this biggest province, RTI law was introduced, however, it was 8th legislation passed (not the first though). Although the legislation in this respect introduced in KP and Punjab is not perfect, it is undoubtedly better than those introduced in many countries.

While the PML-N in Punjab set a good example, the party’s federal government is still dilly-dallying on RTI law and using shoulders of other parties to implement a toothless law that is good for nothing.

It has now been learnt that the government has drafted a new law of international standard that will be tabled in the cabinet meeting for its approval before its introduction in the parliament. How robust the new draft is will only be judged once made public.

Pakistan is the first country in South Asia that introduced Freedom of Information law in shape of an ordinance in 2002 but it lacked teeth for its proper enforcement. Nevertheless it exists at the federal level, also in Sindh and Balochistan that replicated the draft of the federal law.

Now the forum like the National Assembly and the Presidency are using weak federal FOI law for blocking the information that the public have a right to know.

In two reported cases, the National Assembly refused to provide information about the attendance of lawmakers who are seen more on talk shows than in the parliament. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has voiced concerns over the absence of the ministers who do not attend the assembly session to respond to questions about their ministries, let alone the lawmakers. However, Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, who also belongs to the PML-N, has refused information requests of citizens seeking attendance record of their lawmakers.

Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) that went to the appellant authority, Federal Ombudsman, against the refusal of National Assembly, failed to get relief as the Ombudsman declared that attendance is a ‘private record’, an argument given by the assembly in support of its decision of not sharing the record. The Ombudsman’s decision earned condemnation when brought to light by The News.

Pakistan Institute of Legislation Development and Transparency (PILDAT) also tried its luck and went into appeal when the attendance record was refused by the assembly. Contrary to its previous decision, the Ombudsman ruled in favour of the complainant and ordered the assembly to give the requested information. Instead of complying with the Ombudsman’s directives, the assembly secretariat filed representation to the president against this decision.

The assembly has now filed representation to the president against the ombudsman’s decision ordering the release of attendance information. Ironically, the Presidency that has to decide on the assembly’s representation is itself blocking information about the expenses incurred on the Haj of the president, his staff and relatives. The president was asked for information under the FOI law enforced by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, through a presidential ordinance.

A spokesperson of the Presidency told The News that they were still examining whether or not the requested information can be transmitted under FOI Ordinance 2002.

In contrast to this culture of secrecy practiced by the Presidency and the assembly, the ECP stands out by displaying all the information about the taxes of lawmakers and their nomination papers on its website. More importantly, it never became defensive on its decision unlike the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) that is tirelessly clarifying that publicising tax data of all the contesting candidates by putting on the website was ECP’s decision and the FBR only shared it on the former’s request.

The ECP secured details of the tax payments of last three years from the FBR, loan (if written off) from State Bank of Pakistan and corruption inquiry (if any pending) from the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) of contesting candidates. All this was done within no time. The data of nomination papers of more than 26,000 contesting candidates was faxed to the ECP headquarters from 425 returning officers nationwide that was instantly fed in the computer system, sent to Nadra in minutes, Nadra cross checked CNICs and replied online to the ECP with the person’s name, parentage and dependents’ data.

This data was then sent to the FBR, NAB and SBP. Their replies were received and sent back to the provincial election commissioner offices (Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar) and further to district election commissioner offices of all 124 districts and further 425 returning officers within.

This is another story that returning officers did not take pains to scrutinise candidates in light of the information passed on to them. However, the ECP publicised it for all and sundry. This mine of information that was never made public before was then uploaded on the ECP website in just seven days meaning thereby in 170 hours and 10,000 minutes. Recently, assets of the lawmakers have also been put on the website.

During election days, the ECP also introduced world’s biggest and first SMS service for voters to verify their registration and polling stations. It has recently won international recognition through a prestigious award for the use of innovative technology in the elections.

Secretary ECP Ishtiak Ahmed and his information technology team led by Khizer Aziz deserve special credit for setting a great example of transparency. Ishtiak opened the ECP to public when he assumed office. Any information requested was given without delay even in the absence of an effective RTI law. His decision of putting everything on website was a great step forward and has emerged as an example for bureaucracy to follow.
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CPDI to launch citizen’s oversight on 18th Amendment in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), a non-governmental organization under Citizens’ Voice Project funded by USAID, will launch a citizen’s oversight on 18th Constitutional Amendment in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Initially, the organization identified three districts Mardan, Abbotabad and Peshawar for oversight on service delivery issues in three sectors, including education, health, agriculture and food in KP.

This was stated by an official of CPDI, while talking to a group of reporters here on Monday. He said a group of volunteers in each district will be established to oversight the performance of KP Government in the stated sectors. CPDI co-ordinator further elaborated an oversight on performance of provincial government will be made through citizens to identify the loopholes in the service delivery issues. After implementation of 18th Constitutional Amendment, he viewed the provinces have become autonomous to make legislation on their own policies for the development of citizens; so it is imperative for the provincial governments to provide the best service delivery in the Federalised sectors as they are self-governing to manage the issues related to public, the release added.

He further said the oversight groups will be formed in the three districts Mardan, Abbotabad and Peshawar to monitor the performance of the Government. A policy draft for education and health will be developed and presented to the elected representatives after discussion with the stakeholders of the province, he added. About salient features and objectives of the project, he said the purpose of the project is to carry out action-oriented and policy relevant research, which is based on sound understanding of implementation related challenges and which provides practical ideas for progress in terms of people-oriented and more efficient implementation, the release said.

Other objectives are to improve public awareness about the salient features of 18th Constitutional Amendment any implementation gaps, and how it should be implemented in relation to the selected sectors for the benefit of public and to ensure maximum public participation, transparency and public accountability.

Similarly, he said, to oversee the progress in terms of implementation of 18th Constitutional Amendment and highlights progress as well as gaps with the aim of drawing the attention of relevant authorities is also included in main target of the project. To build capacity of journalists and civil society activists in terms of effective reporting or oversight of as well as engagement with authorities about the issues related to 18th Constitutional Amendment. To promote use of available accountability mechanisms for the purpose of ensuring that pace of implementation improves in manner that is consistent with best practices and ensures public participation in all its phases, he concluded.

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One Pakistan


Secret no more

The Punjab and KP have enacted robust and progressive right to information laws which can be further improved before implementation. With the enactment of Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013, all the provinces have put in legislative mechanisms whereby citizens can have access to information held by public bodies. While Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006 and Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 did not generate any debate in the media as these were exact replicas of largely redundant and ineffective Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab right to information laws have given rise to healthy debate in print and social media as to which of the two is better law.

It is important to test key provisions of both these laws on the yardstick of right to information legislation standards in order to understand major points of convergence and divergence in these laws.

Setting the tone and declaring the intent, the respective preambles of both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 and Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 evoke constitutionality of right to information by referring to Article 19-A of the constitution. Similarly, both laws acknowledge right of citizens to hold government accountable through the exercise of right to information.

The KP law goes a step further and qualifies the meaningful participation of citizens in the affairs of government with access to information. While both laws restrict the right of seeking access to information only to the citizens of Pakistan and do not extend it to foreigners living in Pakistan, Punjab law takes lead on the KP law as it also extends this right to legal entities. This is a significant point in the sense that media organisations, think tanks, corporate organisations, NGOs and other legal entities will be able to access information from the Punjab government departments, but the KP government departments are not bound to provide information to legal entities.

It is important that a right to information law is extended to a legal entity also because at times interests of a citizen coincide with those of vested interest. In such a scenario, an individual is likely to be more vulnerable to the mafias than legal entities, as the killing of many right to information activists in India illustrates. Intriguingly, the KP law excludes Peshawar High Court from its purview whereas Lahore High Court is not excluded from the purview of Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013. Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court not only acts as the top judge of the province but also exercises executive powers like head of any other public body and as such is involved in recruitments, procurements and contracts. Therefore, citizens have every right to know how their taxes are being put to use in the case of Peshawar High Court but they cannot exercise their right to information as PHC is given blanket exemption in KP law.

What is truly excellent about these laws is that the process of filing information requests is easy and cost effective. There is no fee for filing information request and only the actual cost of reproducing and sending it to the applicant will be charged. In the KP law, the time limit for providing the requested information is 10 working days, extendable to further 10 working days on justifiable grounds. In the Punjab law, this limit is 14 working days, extendable for further 14 working days.
Civil society organisations need to explain to people how these right to information laws are relevant to them and how these laws could be used both for personal benefits and for public good.

Information pertaining to life and property of a person is to be provided within two working days in both laws. Both laws have empowered their respective commissions to impose penalty on an official for unlawfully delaying or denying access to information. Under the KP law, an official can be imposed a penalty of Rs250 per day for delaying or denying access to information and it can go up to Rs25,000. In the Punjab law, the fine is linked with the salary to offset the inflationary impact on currency and fine of two days of salary for each day of delay in providing the requested information can be imposed by Punjab Information Commission and it can go up to Rs50,000.

It is highly unfortunate that the KP lawmakers introduced a highly undesirable clause into the Act which pertains to the misuse of the information which was not included in the ordinance. What could be the possible misuse of information which should already be in the public domain? With regard to the declassification of public records, the KP laws say even exempted documents will be made public after 20 years. If any public body has any reasonable grounds to keep a document exempted, it could only be done for further 15 years with the permission of the KP Information Commission.

Taking a different route, the Punjab law has declared all documents as public that are 50 years old. It is extremely encouraging to note that both laws have not given absolute exemption to any type of information and if the public interest necessitates, information will be made available even if it belongs to categories of exempted information.

The KP law is more vocal in this regard than the Punjab law and says: “there shall be a strong presumption in favour of the disclosure of information that exposes corruption, criminal wrongdoing, and other serious breaches of the law, human rights abuse, or serious harm to public safety or the environment;”. In a major departure from the Punjab law, the KP law gives protection to whistle blowers and Article 30 says: “No one may be subject to any legal, administrative or employment related sanctions, regardless of any breach of legal or employment obligation, for releasing information on wrongdoing”.

Both laws have strong provisions for proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies. The KP law makes it binding on a public body to publish its annual report and submit to Speaker Khyber Pakhtunkhwa & Information Commission to show its progress in implementation of its legal obligations, details about information requests and responses. The Punjab law requires public bodies to publish annual reports of their activities and make them available but does not make it binding on public bodies to submit them to Punjab Assembly or Punjab Information Commission.

With regard to formation of their commissions, both laws could have done better. The KP government will have the power to appoint two commissioners and one will be the nominee of Peshawar Bar Council. The Punjab law says that the commission shall not consist of more than three commissioners which means that it could be even a one-member commission. Moreover, the appointment of commissioners will be the sole discretion of the Punjab government. It would have been better if both laws had envisaged a selection committee comprising members from opposition and treasury benches to appoint commissioners.

In the final analysis, both the Punjab and KP have enacted robust and progressive laws which can be further improved when these laws are tested through implementation. The onus is on civil society organisations that have been demanding the enactment of these laws. Their real task has just begun. Now these organisations need to explain to the common people how these right to information laws are relevant to them and how these laws could be used both for personal benefits and for public good. Also would be interesting to see how journalists use these laws for investigative reporting.