Access to information is still a struggle | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Pakistan Press Foundation

Access to information is still a struggle

Pakistan Press Foundation

Journalist Naeem Ahmed lodged a request for information under the Right To Information law with the Faisalabad police on July 22, seeking data on armed encounters with criminals and subsequent judicial inquiries. Instead of providing the requested information, the police summoned him. Following intervention by Mehboob Shah Qadir of the Punjab Information Commission the police later retracted the summons and issued an apology. Journalists, not to talk of ordinary citizens, still struggle to exercise their right to information.

Naeem Ahmed says that the commission was prompt in addressing the misconduct complaint against the police. He also says, “Following the intervention by the commission, I have noticed a significant improvement in the responses to my RTI requests.”

The journalist says that one of the main obstacles to his professional work is when government officials employ various tactics to obstruct the flow of information. Sometimes, he says, they claim to have sent the information by mail, when in fact no mail has been sent. He says this is one of the most feeble attempts by officialdom to deny him the information he is looking for.

“When appeals are filed, they are sent via email. However, the responses are received through WhatsApp and typically after numerous reminders,” He suggests that there should be a standardised method for sending requests and responses, preferably through email. “The commission should address this issue as soon as possible. Effective oversight by the commission can lead to significant improvements.”

“Not many journalists have a routine of requesting information under the Right to Information laws. When journalists, or some other citizens approach government officials for information, many of them face harassment. I believe that if more journalists start making such requests and the commission takes notice of all related issues, the process will improve and become more streamlined,” he adds.

Naseem Sadiq, who has been filing RTI requests for 20 years, says, “Sometimes they even take you to court for merely asking a question. My success rate has been about 40 per cent. On September 1, I was summoned to the Lahore High Court because a company filed a writ petition to block one of my RTI requests. When they still failed to provide me with the information, I lodged a complaint with the Pakistan Information Commission.

“Despite an order by the commission to provide the information, they chose to take me to court, demonstrating clear reluctance to information sharing. Every citizen has a constitutional right to ask for the information they need. This is not the first time I have faced resistance,” says Naseem.

“The weakness and lack of awareness in the commissions is a critical problem. Some of them are unable to verify whether the information provided by the officials is accurate. Sometimes the responses have no relevance to the questions in the RTI requests,” he adds.

The bureaucratic mindset tends to resist the sharing of information. It is important that the colonial era way of thinking should give way to a new approach.

Activist Syed Raza Ali says the bureaucratic mindset tends to resist the sharing of information. He says it is crucial to change the colonial ways of thinking. He says there is a need to remind the public servants that the information they withhold belongs to the citizens any way and that they are its custodians.

One of the primary reasons behind the reluctance to share information is an inability to maintain proper records. Officials often claim that they are overworked and overburdened with requests for information they have to dig for. Raza says that there is a pressing need for capacity building in this area. He says many officials lack a clear understanding of what information should be shared. Unfortunately, he says, this also applies to the information commission staff.

“The most effective solution to this issue is to ensure proactive disclosure,” he says.

He believes that if the Punjab Information Commission takes steps to guarantee proactive disclosure of information, it can significantly improve the situation.

Raza says there are deficiencies on both ends. In many cases, he says, citizens are not proactive in requesting information. When they do, their requests often encompass extensive data. He points out that the commission’s failure to proactively disclose or publish orders on their websites contributes to delays.

DSP Muhammad Akram of Zafarwal says, “In rural areas, there is a general lack of awareness about RTIs. As a result there are very few requests. He says that this lack of awareness extends to journalists as well.” Acknowledging his limited knowledge about the RTI law, he says that he has not handled many requests for information.

During the past year – from January 1, 2022, to December 31, 2022 – only 10 applications were received at the deputy commissioner’s office in Narowal. The requested information was provided nine of the cases.

According to Mukhtar Ahmad Ali, a information commissioner, public institutions display a reluctance to disclose information owing to several factors, including inadequate record management, a culture of secrecy, lack of training and the fear that the revelations will expose inefficiencies and abuse of authority, leading to potential embarrassment.

The DSP says, “the performance of Information commissions has generally been sub-par, primarily due to insufficient resources, delays in the appointment of commissioners, and instances where the commissioners lacked a comprehensive understanding of the law or commitment to its objectives.”

Mukhtar Ahmad Ali emphasises the need for commissions to adopt a more assertive approach, particularly concerning the enforcement of proactive information disclosure.

He says the fundamental challenge stems from a lack of political commitment to uphold people’s right to information and transparency. Without such commitment, he says, both public institutions and information commissions will struggle to effectively discharge their duties.

Source: TNS

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