In KP: Who needs a Right to Information Act if it prevents access to information?Pakistan
In February 2015, Peshawar journalist Aziz Buneri submitted a request to the KP's Right to Information Commission (RTIC) to access information on budget expenditure in Rescue 1122.
Under the Right to Information Act (RTI) Act, which was passed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly in October 2013 to better facilitate citizens’ access to public documents and records, Buneri should have received the relevant data within 20 days of submitting his request. The RTIC was set up under the much-acclaimed RTI Act.
Buneri received a response after six months but, much to his dismay, it was both irrelevant and misleading. "I received information on budget allocation instead of the budget spent by Rescue 1122."
Buneri believes that the process of accessing information held by government departments is marred by inefficient procedures, and is doomed to failure.
“The law has unfairly raised the public’s hopes making us feel we can access information on the government’s activities, and that this process is a legal right under the Constitution,” he says. “But that isn’t the case.”
The RTI commission is obligated to respond to media and public requests within 20 working days after an application is submitted.
But according to experts who helped draft it, the law has been impeding access to information held by working government departments, rather than facilitating it
This, they say, is mainly due to the lack of clearly outlined procedures as well as tactics employed by bureaucrats to hide and obscure data.
Public Information Officers (PIOs) are appointed across government departments in KP to handle requests, but the process remains faulty at best.
Gathering timely and accurate information from the RTI commission, however, is not an obstacle restricted to journalists. Applicants from other professions face similar problems when contacting government officials and departments.
Buneri explains that only KP’s information department has successfully implemented the proactive disclosure of the law (the use of modern technology to inform citizens about what the government does).
“The KP government should ensure that all government departments proactively disclose information, as per the spirit of the law,” he insists.
Muhammad Anwar, the executive director at Centre for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA), echoes Buneri’s sentiment. According to him, accessing information held by public bodies is every citizen’s constitutional right, and therefore the commission should put in greater effort towards handling public requests.
“The KP government can issue standing orders to all government departments to ensure implementation of the law,” he suggests.
The Commission has received 935 complaints from applicants this year, according to the RTIC website. Out of these, 275 remain unresolved.
Compared to this year’s number, in 2014, the commission received only 290 complaints. This shows a marked increase in government officials blocking access to information. From the complaints received last year, only five are pending.
RTIC’s Chief Information Commissioner, Sahibzada Muhammad Khalid, believes that the commission’s inefficiency is largely due to a “culture of secrecy”.
“It will take time to change the culture among government bureaucrats,” he believes.
The Official Secrets Act, which was introduced in 1923, has been enforced for almost a century and has resulted in normalising secrecy.
But there are other ways the commission can redress the situation, Khalid says.
"For example, when a PIO deliberately supplies incorrect information to an applicant, he can be reported for misconduct."
“Action can be initiated against him by the competent authority under the relevant law,” shares Abdul Matin, an Information Commissioner (IC), at RTIC.
Awami National Party (ANP) leader Jafar Shah claims some journalists even face threats from officials when they file applications.
"The RTI came into existence with great hype but it is not as effective as we expected. Making a law is easy but implementation is necessary. The PTI-led government does not seem serious about implementation; they need to think about it before passing an act."
Khalid reiterates the RTIC's commitment to change. He explains that they do not have the authority to take action against officials or departments which provide wrong information in response to public queries.
"But we are framing rules and introducing amendments that will help curb the aforementioned culture of secrecy."
The RTIC is also accused of lacking business procedures — a matter that it takes very seriously. “The rules of business are in their final stages. We will share them with the government soon,” the CIC adds.
He also promises that the commission would be as transparent as possible. “The commission is not bound to share its rules with the public, but if civil society is interested, then we will post these rules on our website,” he promises.
Till date, the RTI Commission has imposed a Rs25,000 fine each, in principle, on two officials, Registrar of Khan Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan and the Chief Executive of Khalifa Gul Nawaz in Bannu after the law came into existence. They also issued show-cause notices to some officials for delaying information to applicants in their departments.
But this is merely a work in progress as majority of the officials dodge information-sharing, and do not fear legal or disciplinary consequences, as evidenced by the high-complaint rate.
"We are aware of the problem but don't have any real mechanism in place to collect fines from those who violate the law, due to a lack of rules," says RTIC Secretary Mushtaq Ahmad.
— The author is a Peshawar-based journalist, who works as a crime reporter for The Frontier Post.