Balochistan replaced its ineffective Balochistan Freedom of Information Act, 2005 with a more promising Balochistan Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2021, in February 2021. There can be no doubt that this was a move in the right direction, aimed at improving service delivery, transparency and accountability in governance.
Under the new law, all public bodies are required to provide the requested information within 15 working days. The information needed to save the life or liberty of a person is to be provided within two working days. Section 18 of the Act, stipulates that the Balochistan government shall establish an Information Commission by appointing four Information Commissioners within 120 days of the commencement of the Act. This commission will be an independent statutory body, which shall be responsible to deal with complaints, conduct hearings, issue summons, conduct training of government officials and undertake awareness raising among citizens regarding the RTI law and its importance. Section 6 of the law binds the provincial government to designate and notify Public Information Officers (PIOs) in all its administrative departments and attached organisations.
Sadly, after the passage of more than a year, the government has neither established the commission nor designated and notified the PIOs in provincial departments. These PIOs are to be responsible to provide the requested information and in case of delay or denial, the Balochistan Information Commission has to decide these complaints.
Section 5 of the Act imposes a duty on public bodies to actively disclose, disseminate and publish, as widely as possible, information of general public interest even before a disclosure request has been made. This is called proactive disclosure. The information to be shared with the people includes Acts, Ordinances, rules, regulations, notifications, by-laws, functions and duties of public bodies; a directory of the public officials and their perks and privileges; a budget including proposed and actual expenditures and contact details of PIOs. Unfortunately, in practice, most of the departments’ websites do not meet the proactive disclosure clause of the Act.
In the absence of the appellate body and designation of the PIOs, the Act is toothless and dysfunctional. Hence, the people’s right to information is denied. This is a violation of Article 19-A of the constitution. The provincial departments do not share the requested information and citizens are unable to lodge complaints in absence of the Balochistan Information Commission (BIC). Meanwhile, the rules of business have not been approved and notified yet.
This writer has filed information requests with the Provincial Assembly of Balochistan, the Office of Inspector General of Police and the Chief Minister office of Balochistan. Despite the passage of eight months, not a single department has provided the information or otherwise responded to the information requests filed under the Balochistan RTI Act, 2021. The next step would be to lodge complaints before the Balochistan Information Commission, but that is yet to be established.
It is pertinent to mention here that the right to information entails that all information in the custody of public bodies belongs to citizens and public officials are the custodians of the information. As owner of the information, the citizens can access the information whenever and wherever they want.
The provincial bureaucracy seems reluctant to give citizens’ right to information to their owners due to a deep-rooted secrecy culture and a colonial mind-set. Journalists and citizens are deprived of their basic right to information. A lack of political will, it seems, is the major challenge in enforcing this law.
Edward Teller once said “Unfortunately, secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction – it is difficult to kick the habit.”
It is important to point out that denial of access to information creates a trust deficit between citizens and the state. Secrecy also creates space for continued mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and embezzlement of public funds. Citizens’ participation in governance without adequate flow of information is not possible. The right to information intersects with all other rights that a state bestows on its citizens, like equality before the law, freedom of expression, right to representation, right to equal opportunities and consumer rights etc.
Civil society activists and media houses must keep exerting pressure on the provincial government to enforce the RTI Act immediately by establishing the information commission and designation and notification of the PIOs and notifying the rules of business. Political parties in the province too should come forward and play their role in getting citizens their right to information.
By Syed Raza Ali: The writer is right to information activist. He is associated with the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI). He tweets @TheRazaAliS
Published in : The News International