Evading accountability

The Right to Know Day is celebrated globally on September 28. The objective of the observance is to share ideas, strategies and success stories about the development of the right-to-information laws that have led towards genuinely transparent governance and provided a way forward for improving accountability around the world. More than 135 countries have so far legislated access to information laws.

Pakistan was the first South Asian country to pass a Freedom of Information Ordinance in 2002 to fulfil a condition levied by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). However, under the military regime, the law remained weak and ineffective in terms of ensuring the flow of information. 2010 was a turning point for democracy when the provinces were granted autonomy under the 18thAmendment to the constitution, and the citizens were granted the fundamental right of access to information through the insertion of Article 19-A, which states that “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”.

The year 2013 was a progressive year in terms of the right to information movement in Pakistan. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab enacted effective right to information laws. These laws are helping citizens exercise their constitutional right of access to information held by public bodies. Sindh joined the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by enacting the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2016 enacted on March 13, 2017. The Federation has replaced the weak 2002 ordinance with an effective The Right of Access to Information Act,2017. Finally, Balochistan province repealed its ineffective Balochistan Freedom of Information Act, 2005, and replaced it with the Balochistan Right to Information Act, 2021, in February 2021.

Currently, all four provinces and the federal government have promulgated and enacted the necessary RTI legislation, however, certain gaps remain in their implementation and up-take by concerned authorities. The successful implementation of the Balochistan RTI Act, 2021 has remained a challenge since its commencement. Under Section 18 of the Act, the Balochistan government was required to establish an information commission by appointing four information commissioners within 120 days of the commencement of the law. Sadly, more than a year has passed since then, but the government has failed to establish the required commission.

The implementation of the Sindh RTI Act also remains poor as the 2nd batch of the Sindh Information Commission was notified in June 2022,more than a year after it was due. Without the appellate body and designation of the PIOs, the RTI laws are toothless and dysfunctional in Balochistan and Sindh, hence the citizens’ right to information has been systematically denied.

We are still demanding information that should be public from the government. It seems that there is reluctance on part of the government to share it. It is important to mention three prominent cases that should be a cause of concern for human rights advocates.

A citizen, Mukhtar Ahmed, on April 10, 2019, filed an information request under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 with the registrar of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, for obtaining information on the sanctioned vs vacant staff details. The non-compliance to the request prompted the applicant to lodge an appeal with the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) on May 6, 2019. The PIC accepted the appeal and issued a detailed order whereby it directed the registrar to disclose the requisite information to the appellant. Instead of complying with the PIC order, the SC registrar, through the attorney general for Pakistan (AGP), challenged the PIC’s order before the Islamabad High Court (IHC).The matter is still pending with the IHC.

In a request filed under the RTI laws of Pakistan, public officials are building a narrative around the supposed invasion of privacy. In the case of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), on July 6, 2021, this writer filed an information request under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 with the PCB chairman to obtain information about contracts signed by the PCB with managers of the national cricket team and lawyers/firms engaged to represent the PCB at legal forums. The PCB not only failed to provide information but also refused to comply with the law. The PCB, through a law firm, responded that they are not liable and accountable to provide the information under the Act as it is dissimilar to the other autonomous/semi-autonomous bodies for the reason that the PCB generates its funds through its own resources. The PIC in its detailed order on December 15, 2021, directed that the PCB is a public body and is accountable under the Act. Instead of complying with the order, the PCB filed a writ petition before the Lahore High Court (LHC).The matter is still pending.

Pakistan-Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) claims that transparency and accountability are among its topmost priorities. Unfortunately, PTI member Mushtaq Ghani and others have twice tried to get KP-Assembly exempted from the purview of the KP-RTI Act in 2015 and in 2021. PTI Senator Walid Iqbal and others have tried to exclude parliament from the purview of the federal RTI Act. Fortunately, the attempts at evading accountability have failed.

Another information request was filed by this writer to the Senate secretary on October 15, 2021, to seek foreign visit details of the chairman, senators and staff of the senate for the period of August 2018 to October 2021. The information was not shared.An appeal was then lodged with the PIC. Upon the PIC intervention, the Senate secretary responded that the requested information does not fall in the category of public record and honourable Senate chairman declared the requisite record ‘classified’ under Rule 258 of the Rules of Procedures and Conduct of Business in the Senate 2012 and Section 7(f) of the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017. After sufficient time and detailed proceedings, the commission issued its order on March 31, 2022 and directed the Senate secretary to disclose the requested information to the appellant. The matter is still pending because the information has not been provided yet despite the show cause notice issued by the commission.

In light of the three cases above and hundreds of other pending cases, it is clear that the state officials still incline to a colonial mindset where citizens are systematically deprived from exercising their constitutional right to information. In this context, we must keep in mind what Thomas Freidman said: “Governments that try to control information are fighting a losing battle and if they bother trying, will face exorbitant costs”.

By Raza Ali Shah: The writer is right to information activist. He is associated with the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI). He tweets @TheRazaAliS

Published in : The News International