Islamabad — Information commissioners from the federal capital, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh promised that they will continue their efforts to improve the enforcement of Right to Information (RTI) laws in Pakistan.
They were speaking during a panel discussion to mark the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) 2020 in Islamabad on Monday. The event was organised by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) in collaboration with the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC).
Muhammad Azam, the Chief Information Commissioner of the PIC, said the commission has now introduced an online mechanism for submitting and tracking appeals. The PIC also intends to actively follow-up on the orders it had passed before the pandemic to ensure that federal government departments provide information to citizens, he said.
Sajid Jadoon, the Chief Information Commissioner of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa RTI Commission, said the commission had addressed over 90 percent of the complaints it received from citizens about non-provision of information by public bodies. Out of 16,000 information requests in the province, he said nearly 10,000 were successfully granted by government departments without the commission’s intervention.
Sindh information commissioner Sikandar Ali Hulliyo admitted that there were delays in the operationalisation of the provincial commission due to bureaucratic red-tape, but he assured the participants that the commission was now “fully activated” and will show results in the near future.
During the panel discussion, journalist Tanzeela Mazhar said the departments which hide information are usually the ones that have nothing to show for their performance. She said the RTI should be a means for government departments to bring about efficiency and introduce transparency in their work.
Panellist Aftab Alam, the Executive Director of IRADA, said the government offices must fulfil legal obligations to proactively disclose information. Citing a recent IRADA study, Mr. Alam said 90 percent of the information related to budgets and perks of officials, which public bodies are required to publish online under the RTI laws, is still missing on government websites. He said if the public bodies start providing this certified information proactively, it will effectively end the culture of secrecy in bureaucratic circles.
Raza Ali, the Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Network, highlighted the issue of Covid-related online disinformation to indicate the importance of public access to reliable and trustworthy information. during a public health emergency. PIC Commissioner Zahid Abdullah stressed the need for accessibility of information for all, including the availability of records in open-data, disability-friendly, and multi-linguistic formats.
Earlier, CPDI Executive Director Mukhtar Ahmad Ali welcomed the guests to the event. He said the governance system we are confronted with in Pakistan is such that “disclosure is an exception and secrecy is the norm”.
“This means that those in power are privy to all information but everything is kept secret from the disadvantaged,” Mr. Ali said.
He said thankfully we now have progressive RTI laws at the federal and provincial levels, except Balochistan, and it is now the responsibility of the information commissioners to advise government departments in order to ensure access to public records.
Budget Transparency and RTI Status Reports Launched
Amer Ejaz, the Head of the CPDI Budget Study Centre, presented the findings of a new report titled “State of Budget Transparency in Pakistan 2020”. The CPDI report used RTI requests and a questionnaire based on the Open Budget Survey to assess the level of transparency in the budget-making process at the federal and provincial levels.
The study found that there is “no established mechanism for citizens’ participation in the budget making process” and government departments mostly failed to respond to budget-related queries. The report also showed that legislators take only eight days on average to discuss and approve the federal and provincial budgets.
“The procedural requirements give legislators two free days to read the budget documents before discussion is started, even though budget documents span thousands of pages,” Mr. Ejaz said. “We recommend that the budget documents should be shared in the assemblies at least a month prior to discussion.”
In a separate report on the status of RTI in Pakistan, the CPDI found that on average federal ministries and provincial departments voluntarily published only a third of the information required to be proactively disclosed by the RTI laws. The sample consisted of 60 randomly selected ministries and departments.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa RTI Commission and the federal law ministry were among the top performers with most of the required information proactively disclosed on their websites while the federal ministry for foreign affairs and the Sindh Chief Minister’s Office were among the worst in terms of proactive disclosures.
During the study, 15 information requests were sent to public bodies in the federal capital and each of the four provinces. The government departments only responded to 13 percent of the 75 information requests and disclosed information in only 5 percent of the cases. “The stats show that implementation of RTI in Pakistan still has a long way to go in Pakistan,” the report stated. “Merely passing the effective RTI laws is not enough until (and) unless the wheel of secrecy is replaced by the policy of openness by government departments.”
RTI Champions Awards Conferred
The event concluded with the presentation ceremony for the annual RTI Champion Awards for best use of RTI by citizens, journalists, and federal government departments.
The award in the citizens category was won by Professor AH Nayyar, a former Physics educator at Quaid-e-Azam University. Mr. Nayyar said he used the RTI law to seek information from the Federal Government Employees Housing Authority about development work in Islamabad’s G-14 sector. He said before the use of the RTI request, the residents were being denied information about the nature of the development contracts by the authority.
Freelance journalist Shehzad Yousafzai won the award in the journalists category. Mr. Yousafzai has consistently used information requests to access public data for his investigative stories, including an examination of the Pakistan Citizen Portal’s performance for Media for Transparency. He has also reported in the past on the implementation of the RTI laws. Mr. Yousafzai said an RTI request is the best tool for journalists, especially those reporters who do not work for prestigious media organisations or have a limited network of sources.
The Auditor General of Pakistan was declared the best public body in terms of responsiveness to information requests. Mr. Maqbool Ahmed received the award on behalf of the public body.
The event was supported by the Coalition on RTI (CRTI), the Citizen Network on Budget Accountability (CNBA), and Media Matters for Democracy. The CRTI is an alliance of 57 civil society organisations working for the enactment of RTI laws in the country. The CNBA is a network of civil society organisations that works on budget transparency and accountability in Pakistan.