Secret no more

The Punjab and KP have enacted robust and progressive right to information laws which can be further improved before implementation. With the enactment of Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013, all the provinces have put in legislative mechanisms whereby citizens can have access to information held by public bodies. While Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006 and Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 did not generate any debate in the media as these were exact replicas of largely redundant and ineffective Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab right to information laws have given rise to healthy debate in print and social media as to which of the two is better law.

It is important to test key provisions of both these laws on the yardstick of right to information legislation standards in order to understand major points of convergence and divergence in these laws.

Setting the tone and declaring the intent, the respective preambles of both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 and Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 evoke constitutionality of right to information by referring to Article 19-A of the constitution. Similarly, both laws acknowledge right of citizens to hold government accountable through the exercise of right to information.

The KP law goes a step further and qualifies the meaningful participation of citizens in the affairs of government with access to information. While both laws restrict the right of seeking access to information only to the citizens of Pakistan and do not extend it to foreigners living in Pakistan, Punjab law takes lead on the KP law as it also extends this right to legal entities. This is a significant point in the sense that media organisations, think tanks, corporate organisations, NGOs and other legal entities will be able to access information from the Punjab government departments, but the KP government departments are not bound to provide information to legal entities.

It is important that a right to information law is extended to a legal entity also because at times interests of a citizen coincide with those of vested interest. In such a scenario, an individual is likely to be more vulnerable to the mafias than legal entities, as the killing of many right to information activists in India illustrates. Intriguingly, the KP law excludes Peshawar High Court from its purview whereas Lahore High Court is not excluded from the purview of Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013. Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court not only acts as the top judge of the province but also exercises executive powers like head of any other public body and as such is involved in recruitments, procurements and contracts. Therefore, citizens have every right to know how their taxes are being put to use in the case of Peshawar High Court but they cannot exercise their right to information as PHC is given blanket exemption in KP law.

What is truly excellent about these laws is that the process of filing information requests is easy and cost effective. There is no fee for filing information request and only the actual cost of reproducing and sending it to the applicant will be charged. In the KP law, the time limit for providing the requested information is 10 working days, extendable to further 10 working days on justifiable grounds. In the Punjab law, this limit is 14 working days, extendable for further 14 working days.
Civil society organisations need to explain to people how these right to information laws are relevant to them and how these laws could be used both for personal benefits and for public good.

Information pertaining to life and property of a person is to be provided within two working days in both laws. Both laws have empowered their respective commissions to impose penalty on an official for unlawfully delaying or denying access to information. Under the KP law, an official can be imposed a penalty of Rs250 per day for delaying or denying access to information and it can go up to Rs25,000. In the Punjab law, the fine is linked with the salary to offset the inflationary impact on currency and fine of two days of salary for each day of delay in providing the requested information can be imposed by Punjab Information Commission and it can go up to Rs50,000.

It is highly unfortunate that the KP lawmakers introduced a highly undesirable clause into the Act which pertains to the misuse of the information which was not included in the ordinance. What could be the possible misuse of information which should already be in the public domain? With regard to the declassification of public records, the KP laws say even exempted documents will be made public after 20 years. If any public body has any reasonable grounds to keep a document exempted, it could only be done for further 15 years with the permission of the KP Information Commission.

Taking a different route, the Punjab law has declared all documents as public that are 50 years old. It is extremely encouraging to note that both laws have not given absolute exemption to any type of information and if the public interest necessitates, information will be made available even if it belongs to categories of exempted information.

The KP law is more vocal in this regard than the Punjab law and says: “there shall be a strong presumption in favour of the disclosure of information that exposes corruption, criminal wrongdoing, and other serious breaches of the law, human rights abuse, or serious harm to public safety or the environment;”. In a major departure from the Punjab law, the KP law gives protection to whistle blowers and Article 30 says: “No one may be subject to any legal, administrative or employment related sanctions, regardless of any breach of legal or employment obligation, for releasing information on wrongdoing”.

Both laws have strong provisions for proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies. The KP law makes it binding on a public body to publish its annual report and submit to Speaker Khyber Pakhtunkhwa & Information Commission to show its progress in implementation of its legal obligations, details about information requests and responses. The Punjab law requires public bodies to publish annual reports of their activities and make them available but does not make it binding on public bodies to submit them to Punjab Assembly or Punjab Information Commission.

With regard to formation of their commissions, both laws could have done better. The KP government will have the power to appoint two commissioners and one will be the nominee of Peshawar Bar Council. The Punjab law says that the commission shall not consist of more than three commissioners which means that it could be even a one-member commission. Moreover, the appointment of commissioners will be the sole discretion of the Punjab government. It would have been better if both laws had envisaged a selection committee comprising members from opposition and treasury benches to appoint commissioners.

In the final analysis, both the Punjab and KP have enacted robust and progressive laws which can be further improved when these laws are tested through implementation. The onus is on civil society organisations that have been demanding the enactment of these laws. Their real task has just begun. Now these organisations need to explain to the common people how these right to information laws are relevant to them and how these laws could be used both for personal benefits and for public good. Also would be interesting to see how journalists use these laws for investigative reporting.


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