From ordinance to act: Experts suggest broadening definition of ‘information’ in RTI law

Say India’s access to information legislation should be examined as an example.

Abdur Rauf August 19, 2013
A sense of urgency had been communicated by the K-P government to K-P governor to promulgate the ordinance. PHOTO: FILE


Although described as a “courageous step” taken by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led provincial government, the Right to Information (RTI) Ordinance 2013 lacks lustre. Experts point out amendments which they deem essential before the assembly turns it into an act.

After its passage as an ordinance on August 13, 2013, the RTI is constitutionally bound to be presented before the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Assembly. The constitutional life of the ordinance is 90 days – giving the assembly the same amount of time to debate the merits of the ordinance and make the necessary changes before they make it an act.

A sense of urgency had been communicated by the K-P government to K-P governor to promulgate the ordinance, which he did on August 13. Governor Shaukatulah Khan maintained the law would be of more benefit if it had been presented to the public first as a draft, inviting opinion and debate from various forums. These could have then been taken into consideration in the final legislation.

During the ceremony to unveil the ordinance, K-P Secretary Information Azmat Hanif also asked civil society and human rights organisations for feedback and to suggest changes.

Former K-P chief secretary Abdullah, who was invited by the PTI chairman to become part of the accountability commission, claimed it was “a courageous step to present oneself for accountability in the shape of the RTI.”

“Now the province has joined the states where such laws are known as sunshine laws,” which require the government to do its work out in the open, in public, said Abdullah. However, more discussions and seminars were needed to make the RTI legislation more comprehensive, he added.

Proposed changes

According to Ahmad Bilal Mehboob from the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), Pakistan has the distinction of being the first country in Asia to promulgate the Freedom of Information Ordinance, 1997. Later, the Freedom of Information Ordinance of 2002 was given constitutional cover, but Mehboob pointed out “it was due to donor pressure and not a result of public sentiments.”

If the K-P RTI fails to empower all rungs of the public, it will remain short on substance, maintained the PILDAT representative. He cited the example of neighbouring India where even those living in remote villages were not just aware of freedom of information laws, but could easily use them.

Mehboob suggested the current RTI ordinance needs to incorporate a provision of giving information via cell phones and not just in writing. Another drawback he pointed out was that the RTI failed to bring political parties under its net in K-P.

Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) member Zahid Abdullah stressed the need to bring autonomous or semi-autonomous bodies under the RTI. “Why has the higher judiciary been excluded? The higher judiciary also uses public funds and is subject to Article 19A of the Constitution. This exclusion is unjustified,” he added.

Reiterating the need to look at the example set by the Indian RTI of 2005, Zahid noted non-governmental organisations or institutions which receive public funds, subsidies, land or other provisions should also be included in the K-P RTI.

Discussing Section 2 (e) of The RTI Ordinance 2013, which defines the word ‘information’ as “material which communicates meaning and which is held in recorded form,” Zahid argues too much room has been left for interpretation. “Officers are likely to interpret it conservatively and it can exclude, among others, materials/samples in physical form and information which a public body may not hold but can access from private bodies under existing laws.”

Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2013.


Raghu | 8 years ago | Reply

As usual.

ET sticks to its mandate of criticizing PTi and supporting PMLN.

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