Right to information in itself is meaningless if it does not enable people to realise their basic fundamental rights.
Is Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s (K-P) Right to Information law which is being dubbed a ‘robust law’ and a ‘game changer’ effective enough to empower common people to break nexus between different mafias and vested interests on one hand and corrupt officials and elected representatives on the other? Will this law be able to achieve objectives of ensuring transparency, reducing corruption, improving governance through greater public participation, holding elected and public officials accountable as spelled out in its preamble or will it remain largely restricted to statute books like Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and its replicas in Sindh and Balochistan?
K-P Right to Information Act 2013 meets all the standards of effective right to information legislation such as maximum disclosure, minimal exemptions, obligation for proactive disclosure, process to facilitate access to information, minimum cost for the requested information, disclosure taking precedence over exemption and assisting the requesters.
Unlike largely ineffective Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 which defined information in terms of ‘public records’ and ‘undiscloseable records’ and contained long list of exceptions even for the information it declared ‘public records’, K-P RTI Act provides comprehensive definition of information and declares that everything will be made public other than exempted information mentioned in Sections 15 to 21.
Like any good right to information law, even the list containing categories of exempted information has not been given blanket exemption. The law says that even if the information pertains to categories of exempted information, there should be strong presumption for disclosure if information exposes corruption, criminal wrongdoing, other serious breaches of the law, human rights abuse, or serious harm to public safety or the environment. The law ensures speedy disposal of information requests. Every public body is bound to designate Public Information Officer (PIO) who will provide the information within 10 working days of the receipt of the information request. The time period of 10 working days can be extended to further 10 working days in cases where public body has to collect information from different offices or from third party. Information needed to protect the life or liberty of any individual will be provided within two working days.
The process of filing information requests is easy and cost effective. The PIO will notify the requester that information has been accepted and if applicable, will ask him to pay the fee. If information request is rejected on the ground that it pertains to exempted information, PIO will notify the requester this fact and mention his right to appeal. If the information is denied for any reason, PIO will describe the reasons in writing. Furthermore, the PIO would certify that the information provided is correct. The law says that filing information requests will be free and that there will be no fee for first 20 pages. Only the actual fee for producing information and sending it to the requester will be charged.
Any law is as good as its implementation mechanism. The Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and its replicas in Balochistan and Sindh in the shape of Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 and Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006 entrusted the role of appellate body to Ombudsman which has proven to be toothless bodies as Ombudsman has seen information from the narrow prism of maladministration. Furthermore, the Ombudsman does not have powers to impose penalty on public officials for unlawfully delaying or denying access to information.
K-P RTI Act envisages establishment of a three-member K-P Information Commission which will be headed by a retired senior bureaucrat. One member will be taken from civil society with at least 15 years of experience in mass communication, academics or human rights and one will be the practicing lawyer of Peshawar High Court to be nominated by Peshawar Bar Council.
In India, citizens are using Indian Right to Information Act 2005 both for personal benefits and for public good. According to a research study carried out by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiatives, (CHRI), four million information requests were filed by Indians in 2011-12 alone. The genesis of this tremendous success can be traced to the great work carried out in Rajasthan for citizens’ right to information in early 1990s by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) spearheaded by Aruna Roy. K-P RTI Act is effective one but in order to achieve the same level of success as in India with regard to the exercise of right to information for public good, a lot is required other than an effective right to information law. Civil society groups in Pakistan will have to establish connection between right to information and the realization of basic rights which common people are denied on a daily basis. This is only possible when civil society groups are able to link right to information with issues of the common people and get them resolved by helping them submit information requests to demonstrate the power of right to information.
The writer works for CPDI and is also Coordinator of Coalition on Right to Information, (CRTI). E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @XahidAbdullah
Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2013.
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