The government of Punjab has invited comments from the public on its draft ‘Punjab Freedom of Information Act’, which has been approved in principle by the Punjab cabinet. It is a step in the right direction but major changes are required if the objectives of improving transparency, accountability and governance are to be met.
Overall the intention behind the bureaucratic drafting seems to be to complicate matters and leave loopholes and ambiguities. The critical sections in this regards are sections 4 and 13. In section 4, the law provides for providing information proactively on routine matters like functions and duties, laws, rules and regulations, budget allocation and expenditure, details of subsidies, permits and concessions. This information is already available in the public domain.
Under section 13, information will not be provided if it is likely to cause harm to national security, public order, international relations, privacy interest, legally privileged information, intellectual property rights, life of a person, prevention or detection of crime, ability of the government to manage the economy and effective formulation of a policy.
However, sub-section 13 provides relief since the commission may override the Public Information Officers’ decision of not providing information. This section is probably an oversight as it empowers the commission to obtain and divulge any information even if it has been declared secret by the provincial government. A new section is required to ensure that the commission or the PIOs do not provide information that has been notified by the government as classified or secret.
The main purpose of the law is to provide the public information in which it is interested. Sadly the right to information (RTI) laws will not provide such information. From the police the public is interested in obtaining a copy of the FIR, investigation details, copy of the challan, whereabouts of missing persons, access to prisoners, human rights excesses, crime statistics and access to police station registers.
From the patwari the public requires information about property and access to the patwari’s register. With regard to procurement the public requires information on advertisement, evaluations, award of contract, contract implementation, payments made and procurement files. In case of development projects the interest is in obtaining a copy of the PC-1, the details of schemes, donor agreements, survey data, progress on implementation of schemes, constituency-wise expenditure and total expenditure at the district level.
In case of government offices and officials the public is interested in postings and transfers, promotions, vacancies, recruitment details, enquiries, special audits, medical bills, list of vehicles and their utilisation, TA/DA claimed by officials, property held by the officials and their families, service statistics and access to files containing such information.
In terms of provincial assemblies the public is interested in the assets of parliamentarians, expenditure incurred on parliamentarians, development funds provided to parliamentarians. Regarding political parties and the NGOs the interest is on financing and expenditure and their activities. It is not clear what information can be provided on the armed forces and the judiciary.
The other key stakeholders are the media, consultants and research organisations whose information needs are very extensive. It is doubtful that under such laws the PIOs and government offices will be able to satisfy their information needs.
It is recommended that the proposed act should include a section titled ‘on the spot information’ which clearly indicates information that can be provided immediately. This could be included as a schedule which should be updated by the commission. A committee comprising civil society and other stakeholders needs to be constituted to provide recommendations to the commission on this point.
On the administrative and operational side the proposed commission is to be headed by a retired civil servant, retired judge and a member from the civil society to be nominated by a committee comprising the chief minister and the leader of the opposition. The government will appoint the chief information commissioner from amongst the three. There is no mention of including women.
The act proposes to assign the oversight and management functions to the same commissioners. The commission needs to be expanded to about 10 honorary members of whom at least four should be women. The oversight and management functions need to be separated under three paid commissioners.
The act proposes to appoint public information officers in offices. The main concern to be addressed here is how the applicant will get access to the PIOs. Given the security situation it is almost impossible to enter government offices. However, some respite is provided in section 11(1) under which the request can be submitted to any officer other than the PIOs. This bypasses PIOs. The PIOs a cannot provide information unless cleared by the head. Hence the head should also be fined in case of non-provision in addition to the PIOs.
The complaint process is complex; a complainant at the union, tehsil and district levels cannot pursue his or hers complaint with the commission at the Lahore level. How can a complainant attend an enquiry at Lahore at his or her own expense? A grievance officer should also be notified at least at the tehsil and district levels. The courts’ jurisdiction has been curtailed under the act as a court cannot take cognizance of the offence unless authorised by the commission.
Providing information may take up to 42 days and on non-provision another 60 days if the applicant submits a complaint to the commission. This excludes the time for transfer of application and internal review. In section 10(6) information relating to life and liberty is to be provided within two days. It is not elaborated what constitutes such information.
The budget of the commission should be a charged expenditure and determined by the special committee of parliament since the government will not allocate adequate funds for it to function effectively. The fine to be imposed is yet to be prescribed.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s much trumpeted ‘Right to Information Ordinance, 2013’ is more an ‘information withholding’ ordinance. Sections 14 to 22 are all about information that is exempt from being disclosed. A half-hearted attempt has been made to protect whistleblowers. The KP commission will be headed by a retired senior government servant and members will include a retired judge. There is no mention of women and other stakeholders.
A commissioner can be removed if the other two commissioners agree. There is no mention of how the chief information commissioner will be removed. There is no sign of a new Pakistan in the content of the ordinance. The ordinance suffers from the flaws highlighted above in the proposed Punjab law.
More recently the federal government’s draft Freedom of Information Act also aims at curtailing information rather than facilitating access to it. It also proposes imposition of a fine of upto Rs10,000 if a request for information is deemed to be malicious or frivolous.
In conclusion there is no need to set up another ineffective, bureaucratic commission staffed by government servants. It will only waste public money and provide the same useless and outdated information that is already widely available online.
The writer is an international development expert. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org