UPDATE: Media for Transparency has received a response from the KP RTI Commission on its request to obtain the text of draft and approved amendments. Read the story here.
Islamabad – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government officials are refusing to share details of amendments in the provincial Right to Information (RTI) law approved by the KP cabinet in January.
The government’s secrecy surrounding the amendments has raised concerns that the changes might weaken the law, which promotes transparency in government affairs and allows citizens to ask government departments for public records.
According to an un-dated document available with Media for Transparency, the KP cabinet “conditionally approved” an agenda item titled “Amendment in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Commission Act 2013” in the same meeting where it authorised a special allowance for the provincial bureaucracy.
Sources close to the development said the approved amendments include a clause to make it compulsory for citizens to provide reasons for requesting information.
Currently, the KP RTI law does not require citizens to say why they are requesting the information from the government authorities. Transparency activists believe this prevents government functionaries from discriminating against an information request on the basis of the requester’s intent.
The reason disclosure requirement might be bureaucratic backlash towards several instances in the recent past where some KP civil servants used seniority lists acquired through RTI requests to challenge unmerited promotions carried out by their departments, the sources said.
However, little is known about the actual amendments.
Government officials at several key departments linked with the RTI law either refused to share information or claimed no knowledge of the details when contacted by Media for Transparency. Even though the Secretary Information & Public Relations briefed the cabinet on the amendments, the information secretary’s office insisted only the cabinet could reveal details about the amendments.
A cabinet section officer seemed to deflect by sharing a directive to promote the right to information among the public, issued by the Chief Minister. On further queries, the officer said he would have to confirm whether the cabinet section is authorised to share the information or not.
The two key bodies involved in the RTI legislation – the Law, Parliamentary Affairs and Human Rights department and the KP RTI Commission – were similarly uncooperative.
Even though the KP RTI Commission – the statutory appellate body established under the provincial RTI law – works to ensure the effective implementation of the law, a KP RTI Commission official said the commission was in the dark about details on changes in the law.
“The minutes of the meeting in which the cabinet approved the amendments have not been shared with the commission,” the official, who requested anonymity, said.
The official said that the cabinet’s approval of the amendments does not mean that the amendments are final. These amendments will have to be passed into law by the provincial assembly, the official said.
Legal drafter Saira Begum, who dealt with the RTI amendments draft, told Media for Transparency the law department simply could not share the text of the amendments.
“We are not the custodians of the RTI Act, so we cannot share the amendments with the public,” she said. “The amendments will become known once they are passed into law by the assembly.”
The commission official said the drafting process for the amendments had started after a directive from the Chief Minister on 3 January 2017.
However, the timeline for the amendments goes further back than 2017, according to Professor Kalimullah, a former information commissioner who worked at the KP RTI Commission from 2014 to 2016.
Amendments in the KP RTI Act 2013 had been a tug-of-war between the KP RTI Commission and the law department throughout 2016 and 2017. News reports suggested the law department and the commission could not agree on the proposed amendments during this period.
It is unclear whether the RTI Commission signed off on the final draft of the amendments presented to the cabinet for approval in January or not.
Mr. Kalimullah said the KP RTI Commission had proposed several progressive amendments to the law as early as 2015-16, but these were also met with resistance from the bureaucracy.
These amendments included recommendations to strengthen the role of the public information officers (PIOs), he said. The PIOs are officials designated by their departments to respond to information requests.
One of the major suggestions, Mr. Kalimullah said, was to bring the high courts in the ambit of the KP RTI law so that judicial information and court documents could become accessible to the public. An official familiar with the cabinet-approved amendments said the law’s jurisdiction has been expanded to include the high court but Media for Transparency could not independently verify this claim.
Mr. Kalimullah said another major amendment was to appoint new information commissioners in a timely manner when the three-year tenure of the current information commissioners expired.
“This was a suggestion that resulted from experience,” he said. “In Nepal and some states in India, we noticed that the governments were reluctant to appoint new information commissioners when one term expired.”
Mr. Kalimullah said a similar situation exists in Punjab where the information commission has been without officials for nearly 10 months. Without information commissioners, the RTI commission cannot perform its key functions, he said.
“We had suggested that the law should compel the commission to inform the government 100 days before the retirement of its commissioners,” Mr. Kalimullah said. “This should give the government enough notice to make new appointments and ensure a smooth transition in the RTI commission.”
What is known about the cabinet’s approved amendments is through qualifications applied by the cabinet, according to the meeting minutes document referred to earlier in this article.
The qualifications imposed include dropping “the amendment regarding Tribunal.” Mr. Kalimullah said this particular amendment was part of the original draft of amendments prepared by the RTI Commission. He said the commission had lobbied to include any services tribunal or ad-hoc tribunal formed by the government to be considered as a public body so as to make the proceedings of such tribunals accessible to the public. Apparently the cabinet has crushed this effort.
The cabinet also chose not to amend Section 32 of the RTI Act which states that the government will formulate rules of business for the enforcement of the RTI law. The government can consult with the RTI commission in order to form the rules. Four years after the passage of the RTI Act, the government has still not finalised the rules of business for the information commission.
Mr. Kalimullah said the commission had originally suggested it should be empowered to make its own rules so it does not get affected by government action or lack thereof. As per the document, the cabinet has not allowed this change to take place. This means the commission will continue to operate with official procedural rules until the government finalises the rules itself.
The cabinet-approved amendments will now be shared with the KP assembly. The amendments will not become part of the law until a bill containing the amendments is passed by the provincial assembly.
The government had not introduced the amendments bill up until 12 February, according to the legislative agenda posted on the assembly’s website.
Media for Transparency has also filed RTI requests with the KP RTI Commission, the information department, and the law department to seek copies of the original amendments proposed by the RTI Commission before 2017 and the final draft of amendments approved by the KP cabinet.
There has been no response from the departments on the requests, so far. Media for Transparency will go for internal review and appeals if the requests are not entertained within the 10-day time period stipulated for information provision in the KP RTI law.