Issues in Operationalization of RTI Laws in Pakistan

RTI is meant to promote transparency, accountability and good governance in government departments and to ensure informed public participation in decision-making process.

By: Waseem Hashmi, Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (CRCP)

Date: September 28, 2014

Background

In Democracy, official information is gathered by public money, for public good and people have a right to seek and receive this information. RTI is meant to promote transparency, accountability and good governance in government departments and to ensure informed public participation in decision-making process. More importantly, it provides an enabling environment for effective role of citizens and civil society in service delivery.

International Right to Know Day was established to mark the founding of the Freedom of Information Advocates Network on September 28, 2002. It is being celebrated around the world this year as well with events on every continent. The aim of International Right to Know Day is to raise awareness of every individual’s right of access to information held by government and public bodies, to know how elected officials are exercising their powers and how taxpayers’ money is being spent. At present almost 95 countries have Right to Information (RTI) laws and almost 50 countries have recognized RTI as a fundamental right in their constitutions. After insertion of Article 19A through 18th Constitutional Amendment, RTI has been recognized as a fundamental right of citizens of Pakistan enabling them to access information held by public departments.

Freedom of Information Ordinance existed in Pakistan at the federal level since 2002 and two mirror legislations were enacted by provincial legislatures of Balochistan and Sindh in 2005 and 2006 respectively. These laws were relatively weak and had many exemptions and exceptions. In a landmark improvement, excellent RTI Laws have been enacted in KP and Punjab in 2013, with a world ranking of 3rd and 18th respectively. At Federal level, many bills were prepared/ floated in both the Houses of Parliament at different stages, but they always fell short of people’s expectations and were not passed. The present draft approved by the relevant Senate Committee has been widely appreciated by CSOs and other stakeholders. It is likely to be tabled in National Assembly in the near future. At this stage, there is a need to pursue and assist Balochistan and Sindh Governments in improving their RTI Laws.

During past 12 years, we have made very little progress in implementing the RTI laws and RTI related provisions in other laws. Whereas demand and supply sides were least active all these years, CSOs have been keeping the subject alive and trying to mobilize the relevant policy makers and stakeholders on operalization of existing RTI laws, besides suggesting improvements in these laws. Sustained efforts of CSOs, media, academia, RTI law practitioners and concerned political leadership have made possible enactment of excellent RTI laws in KP and Punjab. Now is the time to review our failings in the past and to make the best out of existing RTI laws; effective or less effective.

Issues and Challenges

Missing Ownership

  • Ever since Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance was promulgated in 2002, its ownership for implementation has been shuttling between Cabinet Division and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Federal Ombudsman was assigned the only responsibility to receive and process complaints of information requesters who failed to get information directly from public bodies. As such, practically there was no promotion of FOI Ordinance by either of the sponsoring government agencies. Since the Government did not launch any publicity campaign and did not do capacity building of government employees, both citizens and federal government employees were generally unaware about the existence of any FOI/ RTI laws. Same was the fate of Balochistan FOI Act 2005 and Sindh FOI Act 2006. Information Departments of both the provinces hardly took any measures to promote respective FOI Acts. Resultantly, no one bothered to monitor the implementation of these FOI laws and there was no accountability of public bodies which did not abide by various mandatory legal provisions. Following are few examples of such lapses:
    • Under Section 4 of FOI Acts/ Ordinance, all public bodies covered under FOI law are required to properly maintain public records and to make an index of these records, for facilitating the information sharing with requesters. It has been established after initiating hundreds of information requests that very few public bodies have maintained and indexed their public records.
    • Section 6 of FOI laws is about computerization of public records. Although many federal and provincial public bodies have established websites, dedicated Sections for Public Records are largely missing.
    • Section 10 entails designation and notification of Officials for handling information requests and facilitating the requesters. Very few officials had been designated by the public bodies and few more were designated after hectic persuasion through procedural activism by CSOs.
  • KP RTI Act 2013 and Punjab Transparency and RTI Act 2013 have established Independent Information Commissions that are empowered by respective laws to; promote and advertise RTI laws, monitor performance of public bodies and hold them accountable for any failings in this regard. The current draft of Federal RTI Bill has also proposed an empowered Federal Information Commission and we hope that impending Federal RTI Law will be a healthy improvement over the existing FOI Ordinance 2002. At this stage, we all need to focus on Balochistan and Sindh RTI legislation whereby strong and independent Information Commissions are established to minimize the existing imbalances in RTI legislations in Pakistan.

Lack of Awareness

As stated earlier, no visible efforts have been made by the Government to educate masses on FOI/ RTI laws and procedures involved to get required information from concerned public bodies. Government officials are equally ignorant about RTI laws and procedures for processing information requests. Only few CSOs working on RTI in the country have been trying to do the capacity building of other CSOs/ CBOs and government officials and to educate masses on RTI laws and institutions, which is not enough. As such, stakeholders are generally not aware about RTI laws and benefits of RTI. Therefore requisite demand for implementation of RTI laws is also missing. In the absence of ‘pressing demand by stakeholders’, political will for enforcement of RTI laws is not likely to gain impetus and officials in most public bodies would like to remain obscured from the brilliance likely to be generated, if these ‘Sunshine laws’ are practiced in letter and spirit. Once the ownership for RTI laws is established, the concerned Information Commission/ Agency should ensure proper budget allocation for capacity building and awareness of all stakeholders, round the year. Awareness sessions should also focus on sensitizing political leadership through all parties conferences, liaison meetings and policy dialogues. This will facilitate necessary policy making and supportive/ enthusiastic political will for implementation of RTI laws.

Absence of Monitoring and Accountability Mechanisms

Any good law will only be effective, if its implementation is consistently monitored and those found violating the provisions or failing to implement certain clauses are held accountable for their deeds. FOI Ordinance 2002 and subsequent FOI Acts of Balochistan and Sindh are almost silent on these aspects. These laws have vaguely stated various actions to be taken by public bodies, without giving any deadlines. FOI Ordinance/ Acts are almost silent on who will monitor the implementation of these laws and how the non-compliance of various clauses will be punished. Resultantly, most of the public bodies have not implemented FOI laws during past 8 to 12 years. On the contrary, KP and Punjab RTI Acts 2013 have laid down specific timelines for implementation of various clauses and all public bodies are required to publish Annual Books based on performance in compliance with respective RTI law. These Annual Books are forwarded to Speaker Provincial Assembly/ Information Commission, who can take appropriate action for non-compliance. In both the provinces, Information Commissioners closely monitor performance of public bodies on implementation of RTI laws and take appropriate policy decisions for improving the performance and holding the violators accountable. Policy/ law makers at Federal level, Balochistan and Sindh must improve their respective FOI laws in line with KP and Punjab RTI Acts.

Poor Records Management

Records management is about controlling records within a comprehensive regime made up of policies, procedures, systems, processes and behaviours. Together they ensure that reliable evidence of actions and decisions is kept and remains available for reference and use when needed, and that the organisation benefits from effective management of its records. Records management operates at different levels. At a personal and local level it is about individuals keeping adequate records of their daily work – filing correspondence, policies and other key documents, managing their emails, keeping notes of meetings, and so on – and doing so in such a way that the records they keep can be found and used when needed, by themselves or others. At organizational levels, it conforms to specific needs of concerned public bodies. From RTI’s perspective, record management primarily refers to all records and information, as defined in respective RTI/ FOI law; which should be maintained in such a manner that any information can be readily retrieved as and when demanded by requesters. It has been found through number of information requests and responses of public bodies, that record keeping in most of the public bodies is not up to the mark. Quite often concerned public bodies cannot provide the requested information because either it has not been recorded/ archived properly or has not been recorded at all. We hope that as and when the Information Commissions start functioning effectively in KP and Punjab, we’ll see some institutional improvements in records management of public bodies of both the provinces. Federal and provincial FOI laws need to be revised accordingly.

Attitudinal Problem

Culturally and traditionally, openness has not been prevalent in the sub-continent. People are generally submissive in nature whereas public officials enjoy a dominant position in society. It is difficult for the people to settle with the idea that they have a legitimate entitlement to have access to public records. Likewise, custodians of public records cannot reconcile with the idea of openness and giving free access of all sorts of information to requesters. There is a need to change the mindset of both the categories on changed global values and realities, through advocacy campaigns, capacity building and sustained procedural activism by the Civil Society. Political leadership and the Government must play their role to create openness and transparency in the functioning of different State organs, which will surely lead to Good Governance and Flourishing Democracy in Pakistan.

 

Mr. Waseem Hashmi is presently serving in Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (CRCP) Islamabad as Manager Coordination and Outreach