Islamabad — The Islamabad High Court on Tuesday summoned the federal secretary for information to court on 15 May to respond to a petition seeking budget and staff allocation for the federal information commission.
The petition filed by Waqas Naeem, a journalist and program manager at Media Matters for Democracy, brings attention to the federal government’s failure to properly operationalise the information commission.
The commission is the statutory appellate body to receive and act upon citizen complaints under the federal Right of Access to Information (RAI) Act 2017. The RAI law allows citizens to access public records maintained by government departments including budget documents, merit lists, and perks of employees.
The government was supposed to set up the commission within six months under the 2017 Act. Almost a year passed before it appointed three commissioners but it has so far not provided them with funds, office space, equipment, and staff to perform their duties. The petition demands these steps be taken at the earliest so citizens who are not provided information by federal government departments can seek redress through the commission.
Petitioner Mr. Naeem has regularly filed information requests under the RAI Act to federal ministries, many of which have not responded to the requests with relevant public records. He said there is no way to force unresponsive officials to share information without a functional commission. The commission is authorised by law to summon government officials, conduct hearings, and impose fines in cases where information is not provided.
“An active and operational information commission is crucial to the implementation of the federal right to information (RTI) law,” Mr. Naeem said. “Without it, the enforcement mechanism of the law is ruined.”
He said the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) government’s inaction in making the commission fully functional will lead citizens to doubt the sincerity of the government’s claims of transparency and accountability.
“The federal information commissioners are competent and professional individuals, but they can only do so much without government support,” Mr. Naeem said.
The petitioner wrote several letters to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting inquiring about the status of the information commission, also highlighting that some of his RTI requests have not been satisfied by the relevant public bodies. After failing to receive a response from the ministry, he proceeded to file a case.
The lead counsel in the case Syed Faraz Raza said the RAI Act 2017 provides an essential right to the citizens to demand transparency and accountability from public authorities.
“The petition preferred before the High Court shall completely implement this right, and as a consequence, contribute directly towards the strengthening of democracy in Pakistan,” Mr. Raza said.
Speaking with Media for Transparency, federal information commissioner Zahid Abdullah said the three members of the commission, including himself, have started working despite unavailability of funds.
“We have sent notices to over 30 public bodies for not providing requested information to citizens, with secretarial support from the civil society,” Mr. Abdullah said. “(We have also) drafted rules of business for the RTI law and service rules for hiring of the staff for the Commission.”
Mr. Naeem said the dedication of the federal commissioners to the RTI law deserves that the government support their work and ensure that citizens get their constitutional right to access information of public importance.
The Islamabad High Court will conduct its next hearing of the case on 15 May.