Most DCOs continue to jealously guard ‘information’

LAHORE: A majority of the DCOs in Punjab is not willing to share information with citizens under the Transparency and the Right to Information Act, simply ignoring related applications or contesting them on one pretext or another.

Most have also not appointed information officers in contravention of the law enacted last year. Such officers are required to entertain applications by the public interested in peeping into what the government actually does.

This trend can be seen from a case in which an application filed by a citizen, Zahid Abdullah, sought details of the vehicles used by the DCOs. The reluctance of the DCOs forced the Punjab Information Commission to issue show-cause notices to 18 of them.

Directing two of the DCOs who had contested the application, the commission also highlighted articles of the law and principles under which all government officials are required to share information sought by people in their larger interest. It has set the rules while rejecting the pleas of the two DCOs who had refused to furnish the information on grounds which they thought were valid. Those issued show-cause notices had simply not responded to the application or to the explanation sought by the commission.
Notices to 18 on citizen’s plea

According to the available details, Mr Abdullah had sent applications for the information in January this year. And upon receiving no response from the DCOs he had approached the commission in June for a remedy. The commission sent notices to the DCOs and only two of them responded but they too contested.

The Rahim Yar Khan DCO stated that since he had to deal with law and order, furnishing information of the past use of his vehicles (logbook) would lead to disclosure of his future movements. “Disclosure of logbook of any officer having responsibilities of sensitive nature has potential to compromise security of that officer which may result in some untoward incident in the prevalent security situation,” the DCO pleaded.

The commission rejected this plea and declared that the mere mention, assumption or apprehension of possible harm to life or safety of a person was not enough to claim an exception under section 13(e) of the Act.

“The respondent is working in a settled district, where his residence and office are publicly known addresses. He also travels in known official vehicles, most likely with security and protocol, and attends public functions in connection with his responsibilities. Therefore, it is safe to assume that much of his past movements are publicly known any way and, in the absence of any evidence or scientific assessment to the contrary, the logbook may not disclose much that would not be otherwise known to a keen observer,” the commission declared.

It said if the respondent had solid reasons to convincingly argue that a certain part of information recorded in the requested document might risk safety of a person, he could exclude such a part u/s 13(3) and by passing a speaking order u/s 13(4) of the Act.

It held that as per section 13(2) of the Act, the benefits of providing access to requested information in terms of averting misuse of public resources, strengthening public accountability and building public trust far outweighed the potential risks, if any.

The Chiniot DCO contested that the applicant did not appear personally to get the information. Other pleas were that he could not bear the cost of sending the information to the applicant in the absence of the schedule of cost which was yet to be notified, and he could not provide the information about the past use of his vehicles because the law was not applied to the record predating the enactment of the law.

Another plea was that the information could not be furnished in the absence of the rules of the law which too were yet to be notified.

The commission declared that under the law it was not necessary for the applicant to personally appear for receiving the desired information. He could seek it through post or FAX.

The commission held that it was correct to say that the schedule of cost (of the information) was yet to be notified. But notifying this schedule was optional under the law and therefore the DCO was bound to bear the cost till the schedule was notified.

The commission declared that the law was also applicable on all the record predating its enactment no matter if it was 300 years old. It declared that information could be provided even in the absence of the rules as the law itself provided for sufficient procedures required for the purpose. Absence of the rules did not prevent application of the law, it declared.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2014

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