PESHAWAR: A group of senior investigative journalists in Pakistan have expressed serious concern over what they believe is deliberate reluctance on the part of several government institution to share required information with them under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s Right to Information Law (RTI) 2013.
KP’s RTI law is an considered to be an exemplary guiding document, which was passed by the outgoing provincial government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) immediately after coming into power in 2013. The legal instrument aimed at ensuring transparency and accountability in governance structures of KP government, is very much aligned with PTI manifesto of rooting out corruption and ensuring delivery of social justice.
The fundamental aim of enacting RTI law was granting citizens including mediapersons the access to information pertaining to routine governance matters, especially critical and controversial in nature with regards to its custodian departments. However, this law was more than a surprise for
Islamabad based senior investigative journalist and RTI award winner Azaz Syed also talks about refusal of his one RTI request by KP government where he sought access to health records for an important story.
“I was working with one of my colleagues from Peshawar on a health story, and the relevant authority in KP turned down our RTI request”, he says adding that he mostly works on national level issues and in general has a good experience using RTI tool.
Similarly, Aziz Buneri, a Peshawar based journalist claims, as of now, he has filed around 1000 RTIs to different KP departments. In interview with Apni Awaz, he says most of the requests relate to controversial or disputed cases, for example induction of new staff against public positions, etc. “I never got the response from concerned departments as the law still provides grey spaces for authorities to turn down RTIs.” He demands the loopholes need to be tied off and loose wording of the law should be fixed.
“Accountability and transparency laws with all their loopholes would also need time to become fully functional. Most departments currently are reluctant to entertain RTI requests or not revealing actual information. Nonetheless, even refusal of certain data is part of the story and should be reflected in it”, Zahid Abdullah adds.
Under the law, RTI commission is responsible to liaison between the RTI requester and the concerned department, and also to make sure that the required information is delivered on time. Buneri says that the commission does not have appropriate powers to hold the government departments accountable and that is where this law becomes useless.
Another weakness of the law is that the departments can very easily seek stay orders or challenge any particular request before Information Commission or even in the high court. This provides solace to the custodians of information, and they would block the information using the overbroad provisions of sections 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22.
Buneri further argued that the powers of Information Commissioner are limited to placing meager fines up to 5000 rupees for delays in entertaining RTI requests or non-provision of information by the Public Information Officer (PIO).
“Still there is no mechanism for collecting these fines”, he adds.
Up to two years’ imprisonment can also be awarded depending upon the gravity of the offense committed by the authorities holding the information, however, it has never happened since promulgation of RTI Act in KP. In addition, the PIOs are also pressurized and in some cases even threatened by higher officials within the department who would start manipulating the required information, Buneri narrates.
In one of the instances, Buneri said he filed an RTI request to Chief Minister House, Planning and Development, and Finance departments requesting the details of budgetary allocation or approved funds by Chief Minister using his discretionary powers. “All the three claim that they do not possess the required information, although it is understood from their mandates that they are the custodian departments for such information”, Buneri tells.
Another journalist Lehaz Ali working with local and international media shares his personal experience with RTI law. He filed around 50 RTIs, however, the responses on most of the requests yielded useless information.
“Information provided to me was either outdated or incomplete”.
Ali in one of the RTIs asked the secretariat of KP parliament for details of 11 foreign tours made by parliamentarians on provincial exchequer. However, the department issued only seven tours’ details.”
This shows that there is something fishy pertaining to these foreign visits, which is being veiled, Ali concludes.
Information Commissioner, Iftikhar Hussain when asked about non-provision of complete information pertaining to dispute between two applicants who applied for a public position, says provision of complete information in such cases may result in a situation where they can create public order situation. Therefore, only partial information would be released. He stresses for resolution of disputes among two parties instead of provoking them for larger differences. Regarding independence and a autonomy of the commission, Hussain demands for amendments in the law.
Advocate Khushnood, Peshawar High Court lawyer, is of the view that the RTI law was passed without consulting the experts, therefore it is full of loopholes and flaws. She argues if a law meant to provide access the citizens to information, does not do the needful, then it is just a piece of paper full of words. Since the government claims transparency in its governance structures and makes tall claims about following the merit, then it should not be fearful of information disclosure as well, no matter how sensitive this information could be.