Islamabad — Citizens must regularly use their constitutionally-guaranteed Right to Information (RTI) to ensure governments do not ignore effective implementation of the RTI laws, former Senator Farhatullah Babar said on Friday.
He was speaking at an open discussion jointly organised by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), German development co-operation organisation GIZ and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Commission to commemorate the 2018 International Right to Know Day, which falls on 28 September every year. The event was attended by civil society representatives, public officials, journalists, and students.
Mr. Babar, who played a pivotal role in the draft and passage of the federal Right of Access to Information Act 2017 during his time in the Senate, said citizens and the media need to use RTI laws even if they do not get responses.
“We cannot blame the governments if we do not make demands for our benefit,” he said.
He said information is power and the power-holders will never want to part with information because it would mean reduction in their control over decision-making.
“Citizens need to invoke the (RTI) law and keep asking about things we can,” Mr. Babar said.
Earlier during the discussion sessions, current and former officials spoke about the performance of the RTI laws in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and the federal capital.
Azmat Hanif Orakzai, the Chief Information Commissioner of KP Information Commission, said the RTI law has been operational in 17 KP districts for four years and has started to contribute towards improved governance. He said the information commission has conducted campaigns and engaged with students in KP to raise awareness about use of RTI. The record-keeping practices at government departments need to be improved so access to information becomes efficient, Mr. Orakzai said.
Former Punjab information commissioner Mukhtar Ahmed Ali said he noticed there was resistance among the Punjab bureaucracy to the implementation of the RTI law during his tenure. However, the Punjab commission made some successful interventions too.
“When the governor house was asked for their daily charges under the law, we did face some resistance,” Mr. Ali said. “But the reply from the governor house did set a benchmark: if the higher office can respond why not the lower ones?”
Recently appointed Sindh information commissioner Sikandar Ali Huliyo said the Sindh Information Commission has been notified and will become actively operational from October. Speakers pressed the need for the immediate formation of an information commission in the federal capital and a new progressive RTI law in Balochistan.
The discussion was followed by an awards ceremony for the Coalition on Right to Information’s fifth annual RTI Champions Awards.
Riaz Khan Daudzai, a reporter of The News International in Peshawar, won the RTI Champions award in the journalist category for his use of information gathered through RTI requests in news stories. Zohaib Hassan, a visually impaired undergraduate student from Lahore who was trained by CPDI about the use of RTI laws, won the award in the citizens category. Mr. Hassan has used information requests to seek details from different government departments about their policies for facilitating people with disabilities.
The inaugural Best Public Information Officer Award was won by Hidayatullah Khan, an assistant professor of economics at the Kohat University of Science & Technology. Mr. Khan looks after the RTI requests sent to the university. The organisers said the award’s nominations were limited in the first year to the public information officers of the KP government, but will hopefully be extended to the rest of the country in the future.
The CPDI launched two reports on the assessment of the state of online proactive disclosures by government departments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, during the event. The reports ranked government departments based on the type of documents they had voluntarily made available online in keeping with the proactive disclosure clauses in the provincial RTI laws.
CPDI Executive Director Amer Ejaz told participants that most government departments have failed to follow the proactive disclosure clauses fully. Mr. Ejaz said important documents, such as the perks and privileges of employees, are subject to proactive disclosure but are missing on the websites of public bodies.
The KP information commission also launched its annual report 2017-18 at the event and Mr. Orakzai shared its salient features with the participants.