Islamabad — In Pakistan, progressive right to information (RTI) laws have been introduced in the federal capital Islamabad, Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The federal law and three provincial acts are generally considered as good laws by independent experts, who have acknowlegded their apparent effectiveness in theory time and again. The practical implementation of these laws, however, still remains a challenge.
A six-month long exercise by Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) to collect public records from several government departments in Islamabad and the three provinces using RTI laws has revealed astonishing facts. Chiefly, the exercise showed that good laws alone have not pushed the governmnents to ensure the citizens’ right to access information.
The government departments and agencies contacted in this exercise included the National Highway Authority (NHA), and the police, health, and forestry departments of three provinces, among others..
The challenges of implementation are manifold. The issues begin at the stage when an RTI request is sent to any government department. It was observed that the public bodies do not even bother to reply. Except for a few cases where prompt reaction by the government departments was received, most government officials ignore the RTI requests. For example, at the federal level, government departments responded to only two out of 18 RTI requests. In Punjab, only four responses were received out of 15 requests. In Sindh, 25 information requests were sent but only 6 were answered. KP public bodies replied to seven out of 29 requests.
In the exercise, the quality and quantum of the information provided in response to the RTI requests also remained a question.
Often departments avoided answering the questions. The queries that they answered were full of deceptions and deflected or ignored the actual requested information.
The opportunities available to citizens to appeal the non-provision of information in response to their requests are also limited depending upon jurisdiction. The federal government, for example, failed to establish an appellate body to hear complaints during the six months after the passage of the RTI law by the national parliament.
Federal Government and the RTI Law: Poor Performance
In September 2017, the federal government passed the Right of Access to Information Act 2017. The draft bill had wasted away in the assembly for four years before its eventual passage.
The President signed the Act into law in October and the law ministry notified it in the official gazette. To facilitate the general public in the free flow of information, the federal government was bound to notify the rules of business corresponding to the new RTI law. Under Section 10 of the Act, the government was also supposed to appoint designated officials responsible for ensuring that implementation of the law.
When MMfD filed RTI requests with federal government ministries and agencies, over a dozen public bodies ignored the requests on the pretext that the rules of business for the law had not been notified. These public bodies violated the newly passed RTI Act. Section 1, sub-section 3, of the Act states that the law “shall come into force at once.”
Only the NHA and the federal ministry of health services responded to one information request each.
MMfD also discovered that that the federal government had neither notified the rules nor called upon its ministries and departments to designate public information officers.
Timely Response Missing
Under section 14, sub-section 1, of the federal Right of Access to Information Act 2017, the government departments are bound to provide information within 10 working days. However, not a single department at the federal level followed this legal requirement. The NHA and Ministry of Health Services took five months to provide the information, which was a sheer violation of the basic rules of the new law.
It is pertinent to mention that NHA remained uninterested in providing the information and whatever information was provided by it was only due to constant reminders. Ministry of Health Services, however, replied on its own.
Quality of Information
The quality of information provided to MMfD by the two federal government departments — Ministry of Health Services and NHA — remained poor.
In the case of NHA, the department gave irrelevant answers and apparently avoided sharing the information of the contracts it had awarded to other companies. It is yet not clear whether this was done to put matters under the carpet or they did not have the required data at all. However the incomplete information provided by the NHA reflected their lack of enthusiasm in sharing information.
The Appeals Process
After getting disappointed by the unresponsive behaviour of the federal government ministries and departments, MMfD would have liked to submit appeals against non-provision of information to the Pakistan Commission on Access to Information, an appellate body mandated by the law to provide relief to the citizens.
But that was not possible, because the government had not set up the commission. According to the Act, the commission had to be established within six months of the passage of the Act.
The deadline for formation of the new commission ended on 10 April. This meant that MMfD, and other Pakistani citizens, could not appeal against the non-provision of information by public bodies.
MMfD decided to approach the Islamabad High Court for redress.
Three writ petitions were filed with the court against non-provision of information and were fixed with the Islamabad High Court. In the first two petitions, the High Court directed the authorities to ensure access to the public records.
MMfD also found out that with the inception of the new law, the 2002 Freedom of Information Ordinance was automatically repealed. However, the government failed to make any mechanism to entertain the appeals already pending before the federal ombudsman’s office. The exact number of the RTI appeals under previous law is not available but it can be safely said these requests numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands. All these appeals were trashed.
“Since the new law has been passed so all the petitions would be heard by the new authority or the commission under the new law,” the Federal Ombudsman Tahir Shahbaz said while speaking with MMfD.
Mr. Shahbaz added that the ombudsman’s office has no authority to entertain any such appeal filed under the previous law. When his attention was drawn to the fact that there were some appeals pending on previous dates, he said he would into the matter.
The Government’s Assurances
The federal government has said it is trying its best to ensure effective implementation of the new RTI law.
“This is a historic law, which the parliament and our government passed,” State Minister for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb told MMfD. “We are trying our best to ensure its complete implementation.”
Ms. Aurangzeb said the rules for the new law have been finalised and would soon be notified after due process. She also assured that the government is in the process to finalise the establishment of Pakistan Access to Information Commission, but she did not give a final date of its establishment.
(Editor’s Note: At the end of May, just a week before the government’s five-year tenure ended, a chief information commissioner and two commissioners were formally appointed to lead the Pakistan Commission on Access to Information.)
KP and its RTI Law’s Implementation
KP is the first Pakistani province that introduced a progressive RTI law, back in 2013 soon after the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf government was elected to office in the province. However, the implementation of the RTI laws has also remained a challenge in the province.
MMfD filed 29 RTI requests to KP departments, out of which only seven received responses.
RTI Implementation Status in Punjab
The Punjab government introduced its Transparency and Right to Information Act in 2013 and assured that the law would be implemented in letter and in spirit across the province.
MMfD filed 15 RTIs to health, police, and forestry departments. Only four have been answered. In these requests, data was required from 36 districts of the province but still 19 districts have not responded with the requisite data.
Punjab health and education departments — despite tall claims by the Punjab government — did not bother to answer any of the RTI requests filed by MMfD. Mayo Hospital, however, appeared as an exception since it provided all the relevant required information within the given timeframe as per the law.
It was found that Punjab Forest Department had no data available with it, and it has not bothered to properly maintain its record even manually. This department was one of the weakest departments in terms of RTI implementation among the public bodies contacted by the MMfD.
However, the Punjab police partially gave the required record within the 15-day stipulated timeframe. The remaining data was provided in almost two months.
Appeals in Punjab
After failing to receive public records on health and education from 19 districts, MMfD approached the Punjab Information Commission established under section 5 of the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013.
It was disappointing to discover that the important administrative positions of chief information commissioner and two information commissioners were vacant since April 2017. This meant that the appeals forum for RTI in Punjab was also dysfunctional.
The State of Sindh’s New RTI Law
Sindh remained the second most ineffective province in terms of RTI after the federal capital.
The provincial government passed the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2016 in March 2017. But failed to set up an information commission or designate public information officers at government departments.
MMfD filed 25 RTI requests regarding health, law enforcement, and forestry departments in Sindh province. However, only 6 were answered.