ISLAMABAD — The Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI) strongly opposes the amendments proposed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Right to Information (RTI) Act 2013.
The proposed amendments are regressive and will seriously undermine the efficiency of the KP RTI Act 2013, the CRTI said in a statement. The coalition, which includes 55 civil society organisations, has been working since 2012 for the effective enactment and implementation of right to information laws in Pakistan.
The CRTI maintained that the KP RTI Act 2013, in its current shape, is one of the most effective and well-implemented RTI laws in Pakistan but the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI)-led provincial government is bringing back an old colonial mindset into play by making the process of getting information from public bodies more difficult.
Amer Ejaz, Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) where the CRTI secretariat is based, condemned the proposed amendment to Section 7 (5) of the existing act. This amendment would require citizens to establish a clear link of their requested information with public importance.
Mr. Ejaz said a requester must be able to access information without providing any reason because the information held by public departments belongs to the public — the taxpayers — and the public departments are only custodians of this information.
“It is the fundamental right of the citizens to access all the information held by public departments,” he said. “This will also discourage the citizens to use RTI as a tool for solving their service delivery issues.”
Mr. Ejaz said the government is making the KP RTI Act 2013 as dubious as the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002. This is against the earlier commitments of PTI, he said. He said putting internal communication into category of exemptions (section18A) merely denounces the essence of transparency, openness and citizen participation in government affairs.
Mr. Ejaz said the timeline of responding to information requests has also been increased from 10 days to 30 days where Public Information Officers will first seek permission from in-charge of their public body before providing information to a requester.
This specific amendment will altogether kill the concept of designation of Public Information Officer, Mr. Ejaz said, and will make every information request a routine official correspondence where files take days to travel from one office to other.
“The amendment bill, if passed, will weaken the KP RTI Act 2013 and curtail the public path to access information and decrease its overall ranking among RTI legislation in Pakistan and worldwide,” he said.
Asad Baig, Executive Director Media Matters for Democracy, raised concerns over the amendment bill.
“The KP government is taking a step backward by introducing regressive changes in the RTI law,” he said. “As we move towards the general elections, our elected representatives should be taking steps that support rather than hinder democratic developments.”
Mr. Baig said the responsibility lies with the provincial ruling party, the PTI.
“We call upon the KP Chief Minister and his cabinet to amend the law, if required, only with a democratic spirit,” he said.
Muhammad Aftab Alam, Executive Director IRADA, said the concept of RTI is intrinsic to a transparent and responsive government.
“Any attempt to dilute the citizens’ right to information by watering down some provisions of the law, as is being done by the KP government, is tantamount to curbing the undiluted fundamental right to information as enshrined in Article 19-A of the Constitution of Pakistan,” Mr. Alam said.
Arshad Rizvi, Manager Operations Society for Alternative Media and Research (SAMAR), criticised the KP ruling party’s actions.
“With such restrictive and regressive proposed amendments, we can only dream of open and transparent Pakistan,” Mr. Rizvi said. “Amendments are disappointing and purely undemocratic which abducts the people’s right to access information.”
Nighat Dad, Executive Director Digital Rights Foundation, also joined the voices condemning the proposed amendments. Ms. Dad said the proposed amendments are a setback for the right to information movement in Pakistan.
While reviewing the legal framework of the amendment bill, she said that proposed insertions will only serve to weaken the ambit of the existing KP RTI Act and rig the field against the public’s right to information.