The much trumpeted Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Right to Information (RTI) law, 2013 still has a bumpy way to go before it makes it into the statutory book.
After the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf drafted the law, it was promulgated as a governor’s ordinance on August 13, 2013 and then presented in the assembly on September 16. Before it could be passed, it was sent to a select committee for further scrutiny. With less than two weeks left before it expires, the RTI’s trajectory has caught some drag with rumours of ungainly amendments.
However, amendments – proposed and rumoured – have come under harsh criticism.
MPA Amna Sardar, a member of the select committee, has moved for certain changes to the RTI draft. She told The Express Tribune one of her proposed changes – already approved by the committee – demands anyone other than media personnel seeking information to share the purpose for which she or he is seeking it.
Sardar maintained people can exploit information and asking ‘why’ will discourage “people with malicious designs”.
Coalition on Right to Information coordinator Zahid Abdullah found this proposition “deplorable”, accusing the K-P Assembly select committee of attempting to finalise the law in secrecy. The coalition consists of 22 civil society organisations working on the RTI.
“The process of requesting information should be kept simple and the petitioners should not be asked to show reason or need for requesting information,” argued Abdullah. “This (secrecy on the part of the committee) has led to rumours. It is being said the powers of the Information Commission are being diluted.”
“It is also being thought the select committee has suggested the imposition of a penalty for filing ‘frivolous’ information requests,” added Abdullah. He vehemently opposed the inclusion of such a provision in the RTI law as it can discourage people from filing requests to public bodies.
According to Abdullah, the law will be of no use without establishing a powerful and independent information commission as provided under the current RTI ordinance.
Possible amendments did not end there. Centre for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA) Executive Director Zahoor Khan shared there might be a proposal to exempt the K-P Assembly from handing over information under the RTI. The Peshawar High Court has already been exempted, added Khan.
He shared other changes to the draft include the restriction of sharing accessed information through media, however, it is not clear what the definition of media is in this context. Regardless, CGPA has termed these proposals “unwarranted and against RTI precedents,” essentially neutering the law which is meant to promote transparency and accountability.
Lawmaker Sardar denied there was any such proposal to exempt the assembly from granting access to information. She confirmed a member has asked for this change, but the select committee finds such a step would harm democracy.
However, she argued MPAs should answer to the assembly speaker under the RTI in case of any complaints. This is still being debated by the select committee, she shared.
The Peshawar High Court, civil society organisations and semi-autonomous bodies working with public funds should be under the purview of the RTI, insisted CGPA Executive Director Khan.
No provincial public entity using tax money should be exempted from giving access to information, he argued. As, according to Article 19-A of the Constitution, citizens have a right to know how their money is being spent.
Khan pointed out the ordinance expires on November 10. “If the RTI Ordinance is not extended for another 120 days or legislated through a majority vote in the assembly, there will be no RTI law in K-P come November 11, 2013.”
Given the length of its remaining shelf life, the select committee may not be able to fully accommodate external feedback in the final draft. “We don’t know what is happening (with the draft) though it should be known to everyone as it is about the ‘right to information’,” added Khan.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2013.