Journalists face challenges as the implementation of the RTI Act remains a dream
While the age-old adage, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” holds true, a painful reality emerges in the case of Balochistan regarding the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2021. This extensive legislative mandate, aimed at enlightening the province, currently finds itself trapped in a vague twilight zone two and a half years after the establishment of the Act.
In the realm of legislative frameworks, the RTI Act 2021 stands as a silver bullet for facilitating information flow in the complex domain of bureaucracy. Representing an iteration of the 2005 RTI Act, this document was crafted to address various ambiguities that the earlier law failed to tackle effectively.
According to the rules, all those responsible for giving out information must finish requests within 30 days. If they don’t, they can be punished by losing two days’ pay or paying fines of up to 20 thousand rupees. The rules also say hiding or destroying information could lead to two years in jail or fines of at least 10 thousand rupees.
Adil Jahangir, a member of the Association for the Integrated Development of Balochistan (AID) and the Executive Director working on the RTI Act, points out that the Government of Balochistan is itself violating the right to information law.
“The law clearly states that information officers and an information commission should be established within 90 days. However, the Cabinet has not implemented this requirement even after two and a half years. Because of this delay, journalists in Balochistan cannot utilise this Act. Furthermore, many journalists in the province are not even aware of the existence of the RTI Act.”
Presented by Bushra Rind, the Parliamentary Secretary of Information, the RTI Act was introduced in the Balochistan Assembly on February 1, 2021. The majority of parliamentarians supported it, leading to its approval. Two weeks later, on February 15, it was sent to the Governor of Balochistan, who signed it on February 16. However, despite this process, the law has yet to be implemented.
Adil Jahangir explains, “The Right to Information Act offers citizens access to information about development projects funded by their taxes, cases of violence against women, employee attendance, privileges granted to provincial ministers, MPAs, and the bureaucracy. Moreover, it can enhance the transparency and accountability processes.”
The non-implementation of the RTI Act is causing difficulties for both the province’s residents and local journalists. Ehsan, a freelance journalist who has submitted several information requests, explains, “I’ve sent applications to various departments including health, education, QESCO, Motorway Police, Sports, Livestock, and PDMA. I’ve reached out to the relevant offices multiple times, but all my efforts have been in vain.”
Ehsan further highlights that the lack of awareness about the RTI law among office officers has exacerbated the situation. He emphasises that if the law had been implemented, it would have simplified the process of accessing information for him and fellow journalists and enabled the public to use their own means to obtain accurate information.
Speaking about the RTI law, Nasrullah Zairay, a former member of the opposition party in the Balochistan Assembly, emphasises that rules of business play a crucial role in any law. He compares the law to a lamp, where the rules of business illuminate the process and implementation of the law. Despite the passage of over two years, the government still needs to approve rules of business for the right to information law.
Zairay further asserts that the right to information is a fundamental right for citizens in a democratic society. He believes this right should be accessible to people, an essential aspect of democracy that gives everyone their full rights.
When questioned about this law, former Parliamentary Secretary for S&GAD, Bushra Rind, stated that the Right to Information Bill is one of the government’s people-friendly policies. She emphasised that citizens will now possess the right to access information regarding all matters of public significance. The Balochistan government has also successfully enacted and implemented this bill, thereby ensuring its citizens’ fulfilment of this constitutional entitlement.
Additionally, the Information Department is preparing the rules of business for the bill, which will soon be presented in a cabinet meeting. This matter holds a prominent place on the cabinet meeting’s agenda.
Malik Sikander Advocate, the leader of the opposition in the Balochistan Assembly, emphasises the significance of the laws enacted by the assembly. He highlights that when a law receives approval from 65 members, it signifies the endorsement of the majority of the province. Considering the latest census results, which indicate a population of 12.3 million people in Balochistan, representing one crore and 48 lakh individuals, the law becomes the voice of this substantial populace.
Disregarding such a law would be contrary to the principles of democracy and the legal framework.
Sikander Advocate further argues that prompt implementation should follow suit if the assembly successfully passes a law. The failure to implement a law, especially one passed by the government, raises concerns about the government’s effectiveness.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act emphasises its relevance for journalists and the general public. Kausar observes that the focus of our politicians seems to be solely on the budgets of development projects, often leaving other important matters aside. Members of the assembly appear disengaged, prompting journalists and civil society members to take the initiative to rouse them from their inaction and remind them of their responsibilities in legislating public issues and establishing rules of business.
Kausar also points out that while the concept behind the RTI commission is not overly complex, numerous cases still remain unresolved due to a lack of enthusiasm and interest. He underscores that the Federal RTI commission hasn’t been enforced in Balochistan, and similarly, the provisional RTI commission has yet to be implemented.
According to Kamran Asad, the press secretary to the CM and an official from DGPR, they are fully prepared to implement the RTI commission as soon as the incoming cabinet grants approval for the RTI commission’s rules of business.
Hamza Shafqaat, Secretary of Information in Balochistan, outlines the procedural journey after the RTI law’s passage in the assembly. He explains that the rule of business was presented during a previous regime’s cabinet meeting after its assembly approval. From there, the Cabinet forwarded it to the parliamentary committee for thorough review and endorsement. The law then circled back to the Cabinet for final approval. However, due to the chief minister’s authority being essential for bill passage, this step was delayed, even though all preparations had been finalised on their end. He notes that vacancies have also been earmarked for the appointment of information officers
Several departments have already appointed Information Officers. The Constitution of Pakistan explicitly grants every citizen the right to access information. As per the procedures outlined in the Right to Information Act in Balochistan, any Pakistani citizen possesses the ability to obtain information through the relevant Act.
The primary objective is aligned with Article 19 of the Constitution, wherein every citizen, regardless of their official status, is entitled to access information concerning the performance of public sector organisations and any initiatives falling under their purview.
Likewise, all organisations are mandated not to withhold institutional information from the public. Whenever a request for information is made, they are obliged to provide it, regardless of the nature of the request.