Though the “right to information” was recognised as a constitutional right through Eighteenth Amendment in 2010, a majority of Pakistan’s state institutions and departments do not pay heed to this basic right. They rarely respond to queries indicating that access to public information remains a pipe dream in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, the right to freedom of expression and speech had been recognised by the framers of the constitutions of 1956 and 1962. In the 1973 Constitution Article 19 guarantees freedom of expression and speech. However, the right to information was recognised as a constitutional right through Eighteenth Amendment in 2010. Nevertheless, the information and media milieu in Pakistan has completely changed during the past decade. The eighteenth Amendment has made the right to information a constitutional right of the citizens of Pakistan. Prior to this, freedom of information laws was in place in Balochistan, Sindh and at the federal level. However, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab provinces enacted right to information laws in their respective jurisdictions in 2013.
A private news outlet reported recently that it sent around 400 different queries to 36 key institutions in the past nine months but 90 per cent of them were either not responded to or simply declined by them. Only 43 (10 per cent) queries were partially responded to by the intuitions/departments/ministries/divisions, providing either very little or patchy information in 2021. Some of the institutions took refuge behind their autonomous status while others used self-defined privacy, secrecy and national security as a smokescreen to decline the public information. A few of them even went so far as to provide factually incorrect, wrong, manipulated, and cooked-up information.
When it comes to refusing access to public information, the provinces seem a step ahead of the centre as they never bothered to confirm the receipts of official requests under the RTI laws. The news outlet dispatched more than 100 queries to the governments of KPK and Punjab each but both did not respond. Sindh and Balochistan even did not acknowledge that they have received the queries under the RTI. It seems that they have no such functional system in place despite the passage of years after the RIT laws were approved.
These institutions do not apparently consider the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) worthy of a reply, defying the highest forum meant to enforce the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017, which came into effect allowing people to access information held by the government. In a couple of instances, four cabinet members and half a dozen senior civil servants approached the news outlet to withdraw the requests.
The offices of the Prime Minister, President and Chief Ministers, Governors, Ministries of Defence, Interior, Planning and Development, Commerce, Finance, Law and Justice, Foreign Affairs, Railways, Communications, Youth Affairs, Information and Broadcasting, Science, Education and Technology, Natural Resources, Water and Power, Overseas Pakistanis denied sharing any general public information. Also, other institutions like FBR, CPEC Authority, ECP, PTA, Cabinet Division (CD), Establishment Division, Planning Division, Assets Recovery Unit (ARU), NAB, Home Departments of provinces, Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan, Supreme Court and high courts, National Assembly, Senate of Pakistan, PIA, FATF, BoI, CTDs, SBP, PID, etc. simply refused to share any public information.
The CD (Cabinet Division) refused to share any information on the collection of gifts and use of helicopters by the prime minister, terming it “a security-related matter.” The Law and Justice Ministry also refused to share information on “fee/expenditures of legal teams/lawyers” hired by the government to plead cases both here and abroad. The ARU and NAB refused to share information on the Broadsheet scandal and detailed links to assets’ recovery.
The Ministry of Interior even shared ‘false information by saying no official is facing inquiry in issuing bogus visas to Chinese nationals. It remained a fact that the said ministry itself referred an inquiry against its own officials allegedly involved in a visa scam to the FIA for the probe.
The FBR also declined to share MPs’ Tax Directory and other public information saying “the applicant may be asked to provide source documents and other material information which may be utilised by the assessing officer.”
Nearly two dozen RTI requests bounced back from representatives of the Sindh and Balochistan governments whose representatives called spade a spade that they could not entertain such requests.
On failing to elicit a response from a majority of institutions, the news outlet filed nearly 50 requests/appeals with the PIC, which continued to pursue the same since March 2021. Off the record meetings and discussions with around a dozen designated Information Officers and two members of PIC revealed that the government and bureaucracy remained one of the major stumbling blocks in releasing public information to the citizens who according to them could create new controversies.
The commission has handled more than 1,510 appeals since 2017 where members passed around 345 orders either against the institutions or the applicants, said a PIC member.
“The commission is flooded with appeals and it is now a rising trend while members have successfully disposed of over 400 appeals. We have issued over 100 show-cause notices to some 25 institutions, including to representatives of the PM, President, FBR and Ministry of Law, who have now gone to the superior courts for rescue,” he added.
Around half a dozen institutions, ECP and SC in particular, even questioned the PIC’s authority and status, telling them they were not bound to follow its orders, he added, seeking anonymity.
The Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 law clearly stated, “Right to have access to information not to be denied — no applicant shall be denied access to information record held by a public body — facilitate and encourage promptly the disclosure of the information at the lowest and reasonable cost.” No one was ready from the government officials to come on the record but they admitted that RTI laws have serious flaws.