90pc institutions decline Right to Information requests
ISLAMABAD: Majority of government institutions and departments have declined to respond to hundreds of queries sent under the right to information laws, indicating that access to public information remains a pipe dream in Pakistan.
The Geo News sent approximately 400 different queries to 36 key institutions in the past nine months but 90 percent of them were either not responded to or simply declined by them. Only 43 (10 percent) queries were partially responded to by the intuitions/departments/ministries/divisions, providing either very little or patchy information in 2021. Some of the institutions took refuge behind their autonomous status while others used self-defined privacy, secrecy and national security as a smokescreen to decline the public information. A few of them even went so far to provide factually incorrect, wrong, manipulated and cooked-up information.
When it comes to refusing access to public information, the provinces seem a step ahead of the federal government as they never bothered to confirm the receipts of official requests under the RTI laws by this correspondent. The Geo News dispatched over 100 queries to the governments of KPK and Punjab each in the past nine months but both have not responded. Sindh and Balochistan did not receive the correspondent’s queries under the RTI because there was perhaps no such functional system in place despite passing of some years after the RIT laws were approved.
These institutions do not apparently consider the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) worthy of reply, defying the highest forum meant to enforce the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017, which came into effect allowing people to access information held by the government. In a couple of instances, this correspondent was approached by four cabinet members and a half a dozen senior civil servants to withdraw the requests. The Geo News has maintained a database of requests sent by post and digitally to different departments and their replies.
The offices of the Prime Minister, President and Chief Ministers, Governors, Ministries of Defence, Interior, Planning and Development, Commerce, Finance, Law and Justice, Foreign Affairs, Railways, Communications, Youth Affairs, Information and Broadcasting, Science, Education and Technology, Natural Resources, Water and Power, Overseas Pakistanis denied to share any general public information. Also other institutions like FBR, CPEC Authority, ECP, PTA, Cabinet Division (CD), Establishment Division, Planning Division, Assets Recovery Unit (ARU), NAB, Home Departments of Provinces, Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan, Supreme Court and High Courts, National Assembly, Senate of Pakistan, PIA, FATF, BoI, CTDs, SBP, PID, etc. simply refused to share any public information.
The CD (Cabinet Division) refused to share any information on collection of gifts and use of helicopter by the prime minister, terming it “a security related matter.” The Law and Justice Ministry also refused to share information on “fee/expenditures of legal teams/lawyers” hired by the government to plead cases both here and abroad. The ARU and NAB refused to share information on the Broadsheet scandal and detailed link to assets’ recovery.
The Ministry of Interior even shared ‘false information’ by saying no official is facing inquiry in issuing bogus visas to Chinese nationals. It remained a fact that the said ministry itself referred an inquiry against its own officials allegedly involved in visa scam to the FIA for probe.
The FBR also declined to share MPs’ Tax Directory and other public information saying, “The applicant may be asked to provide source documents and other material information which may be utilized by the assessing officer.”
Nearly two dozen RTI requests of this correspondent bounced back from representatives of the Sindh and Balochistan governments whose representatives called spade a spade that they could not entertain such requests.
On failing to elicit response from majority of institutions, this scribe filed nearly 50 requests/appeals with the PIC, which continued to pursue the same since March 2021. Off the record meetings and discussion with around a dozen designated Information Officers and two members of PIC revealed that the government and bureaucracy remained one of major stumbling blocks in releasing public information to the citizens who according to them could create new controversies.
The commission has handled over 1,510 appeals since 2017 where members passed around 345 orders either against the institutions or the applicants, said a PIC member. “The commission is flooded with appeals and it is now a rising trend while members have successfully disposed of over 400 appeals. We have issued over 100 show cause notices to some 25 institutions, including to representatives of the PM, President, FBR and Ministry of Law, who have now went to the superior courts for rescue,” he told the Geo News. Around half a dozen institutions, ECP and SC in particular, even questioned the PIC’s authority and status, telling they were not bound to follow its orders, he added, seeking anonymity.
The Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 law clearly stated, “Right to have access to information not to be denied — no applicant shall be denied access to information record held by a public body — facilitate and encourage promptly the disclosure of the information at the lowest and reasonable cost.” No one was ready from the government officials to come on the record but they admitted that RTI laws have serious flaws.
Source: The News