December 12, 2019

Punjab RTI Law: Lack of Information Commissioners Cripples Enforcement Mechanism

Islamabad – The implementation mechanism of Punjab’s Right to Information (RTI) law is struggling due to a nine-month delay in appointment of new information commissioners.

The Punjab government did appoint a chief commissioner in October. But the chief commissioner, Naseer Ahmed Bhutta, resigned within two weeks, according to sources within the Punjab Information Commission, after his appointment was challenged in the high court as being politically motivated.

The commissioners are essential to the redressal mechanism enshrined in the RTI law. According to the 2013 law, citizens can file complaints with the Punjab Information Commission if they think government officials are not facilitating their information requests.

The commission, headed by a chief information commissioner and supported by two information commissioners, can then compel the officials to provide information and enforce legally binding penalties on officials who withhold information or do not respond in a satisfactory manner.

The inaugural information commissioners were appointed in 2014 after the December 2013 passage of the law. The three-year non-renewable tenure of the chief information commissioner Mazhar Hussain Minhas and information commissioner Ahmad Raza Tahir ended on March 31. Mukhtar Ahmad Ali, the other information commissioner, completed his term on April 30.

Ideally the new information commissioners should have been appointed without any delay in March and April. However, the Punjab government has failed to appoint new commissioners. The posts are vacant even after nearly nine months.

Since the commissioners’ term ended, the commission received nearly 800 complaints between May and September, according to Ahmad Naeem, the deputy director programs at the Punjab Information Commission.

Mr. Naeem insisted that the commission had not become completely dysfunctional due to the delay in appointment of new commissioners.

“We are operational and continuing our work,” he said. “We are receiving complaints from information requesters and following up on the complaints with the relevant departments.”

The follow-up involves asking relevant officers why they have provided unsatisfactory information or failed to provide information at all.

However, the commission is not being able to completely perform its functions either.

“Only where we need to take legal action, we are unable to do that,” Mr. Naeem said.

The legal actions include issuing summoning orders to, and conducting inquiry hearings of, public bodies which are unresponsive or have provided unsatisfactory responses, said former Punjab information commissioner Mukhtar Ahmad Ali.

Mr. Ali said the commission is literally represented by the three information commissioners. The current absence of commissioners really means there is no information commission in Punjab at the moment, he said. This affects implementation.

“The commission is the enforcement mechanism of the (Punjab RTI) act,” Mr. Ali said. “The absence of the commission means there is no enforcement mechanism.”

He said only the commissioners have all the powers to hold public information officers accountable to the RTI law. In the absence of the commissioners, citizens will have to go to the high court, he said. The judicial process is time-consuming and expensive, which is exactly why the RTI law gave the information commission judicial powers in the first place.

Read the commission’s functions mentioned in the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013:

The commission’s other functions — preparing annual reports, raising awareness about RTI, and training government officers to be in compliance with the law — are also affected, Mr. Ali said.

He said he could only speculate as to why the Punjab government was not completing the apparently simple task of appointing new information commissioners. However,

“People in the government were not comfortable about the RTI legislation because  they thought it would increase their workload and provide access to internal working of their offices,” Mr. Ali said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actively trying to resist it and delaying the appointment of the commissioners.”

Danish Afzaal, the Punjab additional secretary who is the provincial government’s focal person for media inquiries, was contacted several times but he remained unavailable for comment.


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