NA, Presidency block information

ISLAMABAD: The year 2013 was tumultuous in many ways but it witnessed positive developments in terms of Right to Information (RTI) legislation in two provinces whereas the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) set an unprecedented example of transparency by displaying vital information at its website.

However, compared to the ECP, the National Assembly, the house of elected public representatives, achieved another notorious blot by becoming obsessively secretive about the attendance record of lawmakers who claim TA/DA for attending session but are often found in talk shows instead of attending session; top leaders included. This conduct is in contrast with the Indian Parliament where attendance information of the lawmakers is daily updated on the website.

Presidency was also bracketed with the parliament as it refused to reply to the president’s expenditures on Haj that he performed together with his staff and relatives.

General elections 2013 brought with it many ‘firsts’. Included among them were electoral promises of introducing RTI laws. The PTI was vocal more than any other party and it subsequently led by first promulgating an RTI Ordinance in August this year and then passing an RTI Act from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.

Likewise, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif promised to The News before elections that RTI law will be the first to pass from Punjab Assembly if his party was voted to power. As the PML-N returned to power in this biggest province, RTI law was introduced, however, it was 8th legislation passed (not the first though). Although the legislation in this respect introduced in KP and Punjab is not perfect, it is undoubtedly better than those introduced in many countries.

While the PML-N in Punjab set a good example, the party’s federal government is still dilly-dallying on RTI law and using shoulders of other parties to implement a toothless law that is good for nothing.

It has now been learnt that the government has drafted a new law of international standard that will be tabled in the cabinet meeting for its approval before its introduction in the parliament. How robust the new draft is will only be judged once made public.

Pakistan is the first country in South Asia that introduced Freedom of Information law in shape of an ordinance in 2002 but it lacked teeth for its proper enforcement. Nevertheless it exists at the federal level, also in Sindh and Balochistan that replicated the draft of the federal law.

Now the forum like the National Assembly and the Presidency are using weak federal FOI law for blocking the information that the public have a right to know.

In two reported cases, the National Assembly refused to provide information about the attendance of lawmakers who are seen more on talk shows than in the parliament. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has voiced concerns over the absence of the ministers who do not attend the assembly session to respond to questions about their ministries, let alone the lawmakers. However, Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, who also belongs to the PML-N, has refused information requests of citizens seeking attendance record of their lawmakers.

Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) that went to the appellant authority, Federal Ombudsman, against the refusal of National Assembly, failed to get relief as the Ombudsman declared that attendance is a ‘private record’, an argument given by the assembly in support of its decision of not sharing the record. The Ombudsman’s decision earned condemnation when brought to light by The News.

Pakistan Institute of Legislation Development and Transparency (PILDAT) also tried its luck and went into appeal when the attendance record was refused by the assembly. Contrary to its previous decision, the Ombudsman ruled in favour of the complainant and ordered the assembly to give the requested information. Instead of complying with the Ombudsman’s directives, the assembly secretariat filed representation to the president against this decision.

The assembly has now filed representation to the president against the ombudsman’s decision ordering the release of attendance information. Ironically, the Presidency that has to decide on the assembly’s representation is itself blocking information about the expenses incurred on the Haj of the president, his staff and relatives. The president was asked for information under the FOI law enforced by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, through a presidential ordinance.

A spokesperson of the Presidency told The News that they were still examining whether or not the requested information can be transmitted under FOI Ordinance 2002.

In contrast to this culture of secrecy practiced by the Presidency and the assembly, the ECP stands out by displaying all the information about the taxes of lawmakers and their nomination papers on its website. More importantly, it never became defensive on its decision unlike the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) that is tirelessly clarifying that publicising tax data of all the contesting candidates by putting on the website was ECP’s decision and the FBR only shared it on the former’s request.

The ECP secured details of the tax payments of last three years from the FBR, loan (if written off) from State Bank of Pakistan and corruption inquiry (if any pending) from the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) of contesting candidates. All this was done within no time. The data of nomination papers of more than 26,000 contesting candidates was faxed to the ECP headquarters from 425 returning officers nationwide that was instantly fed in the computer system, sent to Nadra in minutes, Nadra cross checked CNICs and replied online to the ECP with the person’s name, parentage and dependents’ data.

This data was then sent to the FBR, NAB and SBP. Their replies were received and sent back to the provincial election commissioner offices (Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar) and further to district election commissioner offices of all 124 districts and further 425 returning officers within.

This is another story that returning officers did not take pains to scrutinise candidates in light of the information passed on to them. However, the ECP publicised it for all and sundry. This mine of information that was never made public before was then uploaded on the ECP website in just seven days meaning thereby in 170 hours and 10,000 minutes. Recently, assets of the lawmakers have also been put on the website.

During election days, the ECP also introduced world’s biggest and first SMS service for voters to verify their registration and polling stations. It has recently won international recognition through a prestigious award for the use of innovative technology in the elections.

Secretary ECP Ishtiak Ahmed and his information technology team led by Khizer Aziz deserve special credit for setting a great example of transparency. Ishtiak opened the ECP to public when he assumed office. Any information requested was given without delay even in the absence of an effective RTI law. His decision of putting everything on website was a great step forward and has emerged as an example for bureaucracy to follow.
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