Losing momentum: Right to Information Ordinance comes under fire

Many believe the legislation is weak and toothless in its present state.

Abdur Rauf July 24, 2013
"The list of exempted information is drawn in a way in which most of the information will be denied," Coalition on Right to Information Coordinator Zahid Abdullah. PHOTO: FILE


The Right to Information Ordinance (RTI) is yet to encourage a sense of optimism in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).

The RTI’s legislation was devised in April 2010 under the 18th Amendment and was recently approved by the K-P cabinet in a meeting on July 10, 2013. However, as the provincial assembly is not in session, the bill was promulgated as an ordinance following the K-P governor’s approval.

While the Awami National Party (ANP) was unable to pass an act in this regard during its tenure, the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government was swift to implement the legislation as an ordinance. However, the latter has been criticised for ignoring thorough discussions on the matter.

“There was no state of emergency that requires it (the RTI) to be implemented as an ordinance,” said United Rural Development Organization (URDO) Executive Director Zaheer Khattak. “It should have been thoroughly debated on the assembly floor, before which it should have been discussed on various public forums.”

The draft, which is still treated as a classified document, is not a good sign as far as transparency and good governance are concerned, said Khattak. “Officials need to be told what the RTI is about since the bureaucracy has always discouraged the public’s access to information.”

Khattak added it was also not clear whether the ordinance was applicable to the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas.

South Asian Free Media Association K-P President Shamim Shahid said the law was complicated, and officials could still use red tape as an excuse to deny access to information. “I am not hopeful of a better outcome as yet,” he added.

Zahid Abdullah, a coordinator for Coalition on Right to Information, a platform of 20 civil society organisations working towards improved information access, said it was unfortunate the PTI wanted to promulgate an ordinance on the RTI instead of passing a bill in the K-P Assembly. “In its present shape, it will end up curtailing rather than protecting and promoting citizens’ right to information,” he added.

Abdullah said the draft law envisages the establishment of a one-member information commission. Furthermore, the information commission does not have powers to issue directions to public bodies to proactively disclose information, and cannot impose penalties on officers for unlawfully denying access to information requested under the law.

“The list of exempted information is drawn in a way in which most of the information will be denied,” he added. “Furthermore, all exempted information is not subject to a harm test which defeats the purpose of a right to information law.”

Under the RTI ordinance, information can be obtained at ‘the lowest reasonable cost’, but it is unclear how long it will take to form an information commission which will facilitate this process. Moreover, it is feared people will shirk from taking advantage of the legislation due to the lengthy process of obtaining information, which will last around three weeks.

In case the applicant is not satisfied with the correctness or completeness of the information requested, he or she may lodge a complaint with the information commission in order to initiate an inquiry. The information commission will dispose of the complaint within 30 days of its receipt, or within an extended period not exceeding a total of 45 days.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2013.


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