The International Right to Know Day was celebrated globally on September 28. In Pakistan, the Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI), an alliance of over 50 civil society organisations working on access to information, announced its annual RTI Champions Awards. The awards were presented at a ceremony organised by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) and the German international development organisation GIZ.
In 2018, the CRTI launched a new category for the Best Public Information Officer (PIO), in collaboration with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information (RTI) Commission. The inaugural award was won by Hidayatullah Khan. an assistant professor of economics at Kohat University of Sciences & Technology, who is also the designated PIO of the university.
Media for Transparency spoke with Mr. Khan about his duties as the university’s PIO.
Mr. Khan, who said he has responded to more than 400 RTI requests from citizens, dedicated his award to the work of all PIOs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government departments.
He admitted that when he was designated the university’s PIO and was given a brief idea of what it meant, he became concerned.
“I was afraid,” Mr. Khan said. “At that time we were supposed to supply daily reports of RTI requests no matter what; if it was missed for some reason it was only our responsibility.”
He said that in the beginning he had no training or proper understanding of the law. Then, he said, he started studying the law to get a proper grasp over it.
Mr. Khan said being understaffed was a challenge for responding to the information requests received by the university.
“I was the PIO, I was also the peon, I didn’t have a computer or some place to sit,” he said. “I was like a hawker.”
The other problem he says was the attitude of the officials from whom he was supposed to retrieve information. He said that in the start they would not cooperate and would tell him to mind his own business.
“After that many of them were summoned by the (KP RTI) commission and then things eventually became better,” he said.
Mr. Khan said the KP RTI law was a “bit harsh” on the PIOs because the officers have to retrieve the information from the department heads who might be unwilling to share public records.
“They say ‘boy, calm down, by the end of the year I will be the one writing your confidential (employee evaluation) report’,” Mr. Khan said.
The KP RTI law did not create new administrative positions for PIOs, rather government departments were asked to assign the tasks of the PIO to an existing employee.
At present, Mr. Khan said the challenges have become more complex and sophisticated.
“Previously people (in the bureaucracy) did not understand the law properly,” he said. “Now, not only do they comprehend it they have also found shortcomings in it.”
Mr. Khan said the bureaucrats use delaying tactics or declare the information privileged to avoid sharing it.
He said that he has only denied information requests when the question statements are vague or to discourage people who habitually ask for information.