For the first time since the Right to Information (RTI) law was legislated in 2013, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) RTI Commission has penalised a public official for failing to provide the information requested in accordance with the law. The registrar of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan was fined for refusing to provide information about hirings within the institution and for failing to reply to a show-cause notice sent by the Commission about the RTI request. Through this move, the Commission has set an excellent precedent and set the ball rolling for the quest for ensuring freedom of information. It is hoped that this will pressure officials delaying or refusing RTI requests and encourage a culture of accountability that this country at large is greatly in need of.
But while the law has proved itself in this instance, it has been failed by the K-P Assembly itself. In a recent move, the assembly decided to exempt itself from the ambit of the law and unanimously passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2015. If elected lawmakers cannot be questioned by their constituents, then the law loses its primary purpose. As it stands now, voters cannot get information about assembly proceedings. Other amendments to the RTI law include placing a public information officer in every government department instead of an information officer and the right to appeal the decision of the commission in the court of a district and sessions judge.
The RTI law is meant to lessen the secrecy surrounding matters of governance, but the provincial assembly excluding itself from questioning is reflective of how unwilling it is to ensure complete accountability in the province. The amendment is most disappointing, particularly from an assembly that led the way in ensuring access to information in the country. The law was much celebrated by the ruling PTI as its first major feat, and was widely appreciated and welcomed across the country. It was indeed a pro-citizen piece of legislation and the move to exempt the provincial assembly from its ambit goes against the spirit of the law. The K-P Assembly set the right example for the country; it should now keep up with its promises and undo the recent amendment.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2015.
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