KP Officials Discouraging Citizens From Filing Right To Information Requests
Social activist Assad Ullah filled a request with the District and Session Judges of Abbottabad, Haripur and Charsadda under Right to Information (RTI) law, seeking details of development funds and their utilization for the fiscal year of 2018-19.
He received information from Harripur and Abbottabad while Charsadda’s District and Session Judge’s office sent him a letter asking him to visit the office to get the information he needed.
Asad wrote to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission (KP RTI Commission) and said that he can’t visit in person. He asked the commission to help him get the information from the District and Session Judge’s office.
Instead of helping him get information, the commission through letter No RTIC/AR/1-6431/19-9288-89 dated Dec 05, 2019 directed the applicant to visit the office of the District and Session Judge within seven working days and receive information by hand, otherwise the case will be disposed of.
Responding to the Commission’s direction, Asad Ullah said that he regularly files right to information requests to different public bodies and he mostly receives replies and information either by post and email.
He said that it is very difficult for him to visit Charsadda from Peshawar and get information, adding that RTI commission’s direction to visit the office to collect information is against the law. The District and Session Judge’s office should send him information either by email or post, he explained.
What RTI law says
Section 12 of KP RTI Act 2013 says “Where an applicant has indicated a preferred means for accessing information, such as a physical copy (attested), an electronic copy or an opportunity to inspect certain records, the public body shall provide access in that form unless to do so would unreasonably interfere with its operations or harm the document”.
Reaction of the civil society organization
Civil Society has criticized the decision of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission (KP RTI Commission) and termed it as being against the spirit of accountability and good governance.
Anwar Yousafzai, director at Centre for Governance and Public Accountability, also criticized the directives of KP Information commission and said that the RTI Commission was not issuing notices to the judiciary.
The law encourages the public bodies to share such information on their website so that the citizen does not have to file information requests, while on the other hand information commission is directing the citizen to visit public bodies to collect information, Anwar maintained.
In a similar case, Basharat Masih had requested information from Pakistan Railways about the total number of posts it had advertised on the seats reserved for minorities, under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017.
Pakistan Railways directed the citizen to go to the office of the Chief Personnel Officer, Pakistan Railways, in Lahore on any working day to collect the information.
The Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) noted grave concern over the direction of the public body to visit their office for information. PIC stated “Instead of facilitating the Appellant by asking the preferred mode of receiving the requested information i.e. via email or through snail mail, the Respondent requested the Appellant to appear in person to collect the requested information which is against the provisions of the law”.
PIC ordered the Pakistan Railways to provide the requested information within 10 working days.
Anwar Yousafzai appreciated the decision of the PIC and said that should be the spirit of the commission to ensure provision of the information to the citizen at their convenience.
Zahid Abdullah, Information Commissioner at PIC, said, if the public body has the facilities, they are bound to provide the requested information in the citizen’s preferred mode.
“If a citizen of Chaghi or Hyderabad, requests any federal public body for information, how is it possible that he visit their office in Islamabad?” he maintained.
KP RTI losing its trust
Back in 2013, the province passed the RTI law to ensure good governance, accountability and to eliminate corruption. And when the RTI Commission was made functional in 2014, people rushed to the commission complaining on merit violation, corruption, bad management and governance.
Soon after the citizens started exposing corruption and merit violation in public bodies and educational institutions, the government, instead of making the law more effective by strengthening its weak areas, has made an attempt in 2018 to amend the bill and proposed an increase in the response time to the information request from maximum of 21 days to 30 days and made it essential for the petitioners to seek prior permission from the public body head. Moreover, it will empower the public body head to deny information, and bound the applicant to establish a clear link of their required information with public importance.
Though the government skipped the amendment after civil society’s strong reaction to the proposed amendments, the people started losing their trust in the Commission.
The first six-month data of the current year shared by the RTI Commission shows the request for information to public bodies went down by almost 19 per cent as compared to the last year.
The commission recorded highest numbers of complaints in 2016. A total 1520 people filed a request in 2016 with various public bodies. Since then, the request for information to the public bodies went down by almost 40 per cent.