Right to Information Ordinance 2013: ‘Transparency vital to the functioning of democracy’

Information compromising economic interests, national security can be withheld.


Abdur Rauf July 21, 2013
K-P Right to Information Ordinance 2013 being treated as classified document. PHOTO: FILE

PESHAWAR:


The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) government’s Right to Information (RTI) Ordinance 2013 holds transparency and access to data as vital to the functioning of a democracy.


It is aimed at improving governance, reducing corruption, and holding government and statutory organisations, run on state or foreign funding, accountable to its citizens.

At the moment, however, the Right to Information Ordinance is being treated as a classified document.

The RTI document, available with The Express Tribune states as “the provincial assembly is not in session and the governor of K-P is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary to take immediate action; it is pleased to promulgate the ordinance called The K-P Right to Information Ordinance, 2013.”

At its crux, the ordinance is meant “to facilitate and encourage, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost, the disclosure of information”.

The nuts and bolts

Under the ordinance, subject to restrictions imposed, ‘information’ means any data related to the constitution, structure and official activities of a public body. This means its transactions, budget, expenditures, purchases, contracts, licenses, appointments, and salaries, among other things.

Information Commission

The government will constitute a ‘K-P Information Commission’ to exercise the powers conferred by the ordinance. It will be headed by a chief information commissioner.

All decisions taken by the information commission with regards to complaints filed with the body will not be subject to appeal in any court.

As defined by the RTI 2013, a complaint would be a formal written application which could level a number of allegations.

These include the withholding of information by a public body or denying the applicant access to his personal information. Complaints could also be related to the duration it took to process the request or of falsified information.

How long is the commission’s arm?

The information commission can inquire into any matter which has a bearing on the right to access of information. It will be vested with the powers of a civil court, under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. These cover summoning people to give evidence or produce documents, discovery of documents, receiving evidence, requisitioning public records, compensating applications, and calling witnesses.

The extent of the commission’s reach is vast enough to direct a respondent to take action or forward the complaint to a court for criminal proceedings.

Alternately, the commission can also find a complaint unjustified, and can dismiss it, asking the complainant to bear the cost of the process.

How public bodies will toe the line

The commission can direct a public body to take any number of steps to ensure the ordinance is being complied with, which can include publishing information or amending its practices related to maintaining and destroying records.

It can also discharge the body of its obligation to grant information.

Finally, it can ask the organisation to compensate applications for any expenses or losses incurred in the refusal of an RTI request.

Under the ordinance, all public bodies will have to maintain an official website, which provides details on its structure and contact information, particularly of the designated public information officer.

Exemptions

While the RTI Ordinance asks access not be denied, certain information can be withheld. Information which can risk the life or vital interests of a person can be exempted from being disclosed.

The same applies for any data which can obstruct justice in any capacity – detection of criminal offences, trial proceedings and sentencing, etc. Information which can compromise national economic interests, national security, public safety and shared foreign intelligence can also be withheld.

Data or records which are not related to public interest and contain personal information will not be released in case of invasion of privacy of the individual in question. The document stipulates the commission can only justify such disclosures if a larger public interest is at stake.

Taking to task

If a member of a body destroys a record while it was the subject of a request, he or she will be committing a cognisable offense, punishable by imprisonment which can extend to six months and/or a fine not exceeding Rs50,000.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2013.

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