Annual Report 2018-19: The Implementation of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 – Progress and Challenges
Despite the fact that Pakistan Information Commission was established on November 07, 2018, it is still not a fully functional institution. Even though requisite staff has not been provided to the commission and no office space has been allocated to the commission yet and salaries of the members of the commission were released after more than 8 months of their taking charge of their office, the commission has taken significant steps to promote peoples’ constitutional right of access to information and transparency in governance.
After the appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner and two information commissioners, the major challenge for the Commission was to establish a functional office, which took considerable time in view of time-consuming government procedures related to approval of budget, creation of posts, opening up of account, hiring of office building, arranging staff and procurements. In the meanwhile, without waiting for the establishment of its office, the Commission had started performing its substantive functions in accordance with, inter alia, section 19of the Right of Access to Information Act 2019.
One of the most important functions of the Commission is to receive and decide complaints about, among others, wrongful denial or delay in providing access to information. In this regard, working from one room office in Information Services Academy, the Commissioners issued notices, initially with the help of Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability, (TDEA) on all 185 appeals to the federal public bodies to provide reasons for delaying or denying access to information requested by citizens as a matter of their fundamental constitutional right, conducted 50 hearings and in over 90 federal public bodies have provided requested information to citizens after the intervention of the commission.
Furthermore, the commission issued detailed Orders on appeals against Federal Board of Revenue, (FBR), Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, (PBC), National Bank of Pakistan, (NBP), Cantonment Board Clifton, (CBC), Civil Aviation Authority, (CAA) and Federal Investigation Agency which could serve as precedents in the future. The Order of the commission against FBR was challenged by the public body but the honourable Islamabad High Court upheld Order of the commission.
Many of the remaining complaints are at an advanced stage of their disposal.
It is heartening to note that one of the judgements of the commission was challenged by the public body in Islamabad High Court but it was upheld by the Honourable Chief Justice of Islamabad High Court.
The Act also requires the Commission to take steps to create public awareness about their right to information. In the absence of budgetary support and being mindful of this responsibility and its importance, the Commission gave interviews to print and electronic media. The commission also created The Twitter handle of the commission to spread awareness about the commission, its responsibilities and the rights provided in the Act on social media.
Other achievements of the Commission during this period include the following:
- The Commission drafted the Right of Access to Information Act Rules 2019, responded to the queries of the Ministry of Law and Justice and which will be notified after the approval of Federal Cabinet.
- The commission developed service rules so that it could recruit staff for the commission once the commission has the budget. These service rules will be shared with Establishment Division once the Ministry of Finance formally sanctions posts for officers and staff for the commission.
- The Commission developed and notified a Schedule of Costs for the guidance of applicants and government officers on August 23, 2019. Citizens will be no longer required to first deposit fee for filing an information under the Schedule of Cost notified by the commission. Previously, citizens were required to deposit Rs. 50 at the time of submitting an information request to a federal public body under Freedom of Information Rules 2004 which was great hinderance in the exercise of the right of access to information in matters of public importance as guaranteed by Article 19-A of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
- The commission developed ‘Procedure for the Processing of Appeals’ as required under Section 27 © of the Act.
- Letters and circulars were issued to remind and guide public bodies as well as PIOs about their responsibilities under the Act.
- The Commission developed and issued ‘Guidelines for Public Information Officers and Heads of Federal Public Bodies for the Implementation of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 which are being shared with Public Information Officers and the heads of public bodies.
- On the request of the commission, Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability developed a website of the Commission (www.rti.gov.pk). which provides significant resources for the guidance of people and government officers including PIOs.
The commission faced almost identical challenges as were faced by Punjab Information Commission in its first year. The major challenge faced by the Commission involved administrative and logistical arrangements, especially in terms of setting up its office. The Commission could have performed much better if the government had managed to provide a small office space and minimal staff soon after its establishment.
Pakistan Information Commission, like the Punjab Information Commission also faced other challenges like lack of public awareness about the Act, endemic culture of secrecy and consequent resistance to provide access to information, lack of interest and initiatives on the part of administrative heads of departments in terms of owning and implementing the Act, and limited capacity at lower levels of the government for efficient disposal of information requests. This report makes suggestions about the steps necessary to address the challenges and facilitate government functionaries in the context of their responsibility of providing timely access to information.
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