Upload MPAs attendance on web, Punjab PA directed

ISLAMABAD: Punjab Information Commission has taken the bull by the horns. In a landmark judgment handed out Monday, the commission has directed the Punjab Assembly to display on its website the attendance record of all MPAs. So far the information was being denied on the frivolous ground of the privacy of public representatives.

Punjab Assembly has violated its newly passed legislation on Right to Information by denying the attendance record of lawmakers taking cue from the National Assembly which repeatedly denied access to the same information of MNAs who hold every public body accountable but want their information treated as ‘private’. This is in contrast with the neighboring country, India, where attendance record of lawmakers is just a click away, as it is regularly uploaded on the Parliament’s official website.

A citizen Amer Ejaz had filed RTI request to the Punjab Assembly asking for the attendance information. When denied, he moved the commission, an appellant authority, seeking intervention for securing the information that is his basic right recognised in the constitution and subsequent legislation by the provincial legislature.

Delivering the verdict on his appeal, the commission directed the Punjab Assembly to provide the requested information to the complainant not later than January 20 and submit compliance report to the Commission.

Exercising its power under section 6 (1) (a) of the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, the commission also directed the Punjab Assembly “to establish a mechanism for proactively disclosing the attendance record of members of the Assembly for each of its sittings by posting it on the website soon after a sitting ends, as it is done in other countries like India.”

As the commission summoned Public Information Officer of the assembly inquiring the reason for denying the information, he said the ‘competent authority has withheld the information’. The information commissioner, Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, who heard the case asked PIO who was competent authority other than him to decide the transmission of information and how exactly the requested information could harm to the legitimate privacy interests of the lawmakers.

According to the Act, PIO is the competent authority to make a decision, nobody else. Can the information related to official functions of a person involving use of public funds be treated as personal information or related to privacy of a person, the commissioner asked. The requested information, PIO said, was not passed on to him by the concerned section.

As PIO shared legal opinion given by the deputy secretary (legislation), it though recognised constitutional right of citizens, quoted example of Indian Parliament wherein attendance record is displayed on the official website and that Federal Ombudsman had also ruled in favour of attendance information, he at the end of note thought it appropriate to recommend refusal of information as ‘one of the options.’

The commissioner in his judgment noted that the requested information is about the attendance record of elected representatives who perform a public function within their constitutional mandate and are accountable to citizens. They are also compensated in the form of salary, allowances and other perks or privileges for the work they undertake and the functions they perform whereas the attendance record provides a basis for documenting performance, processing compensation and administering legislative business – all of these relate to official or public, not their personal domain.

By no stretch of imagination, the judgment said, the attendance record can be treated as exempt information whose disclosure might harm ‘legitimate privacy interest’ of members under section 13(1) (b) of the Act. In fact, the maximum disclosure of information, such as the requested one, is of paramount importance for effective functioning of a democratic system so that voters could track the performance of their elected members and make informed political choices.

Umar Cheema
The News,Tuesday, January 13, 2015