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KPK Right to Information Act is Best in the World - World Bank Report on KPK RTI Act, Umar Cheema Report

Posted By: Jazbat Ali on August 20, 2013 | 04:27:53

Umar Cheema Article About PTI Right to Information Act in "The News", 20th August 2013

KPK info Bill a Catalyst for Change

ISLAMABAD: Although promulgation of Right to Information (RTI) Ordinance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has largely gone unnoticed in the media, it is set to become a catalyst for change by practically recognising the people’s right to know through a law considered one of the best in the world.

While majority of the media persons are unaware of the efficacy of an RTI law that breaks the culture of secrecy and ends monopoly of ‘privileged’ journalists, it is equally useful for the public, allowing them to seek out information about anything and of any department run by public money. “The KP RTI Ordinance contains all the features that are vital for a strong RTI law. This is why it scores 143 and is positioned at the top of global RTI rankings,” commented a World Bank expert.

Before discussing the salient features of the RTI Ordinance promulgated in the KP, it is important to understand Pakistan’s position on global level regarding introduction of the laws promoting transparency and curbing corruption. This law existed in only 13 countries just a couple of decades ago, according to a World Bank briefing note. Now is introduced in 90 countries though it differs in effectiveness, depending on the structure and scope of legal framework.

Pakistan was the first country in South Asia to introduce RTI legislation through Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance in 2002 however the law defeated its own purpose given the shortcomings as it was limited in scope with a lot of information declared exempted from disclosure and the subsequent weak enforcement mechanism.

In contrast, India introduced similar legislation in 2005 that resulted in changing the governance paradigm and unprecedented growth of RTI activists other than the media holding the government to account.

Bangladesh and Nepal followed. Now India stands 2nd in global rating of RTI laws, Bangladesh ranks 15th, Nepal occupies 20th position while Pakistan ranks 76th among 90 countries having RTI laws.

Article 19-A of the 18th amendment was a step forward as people’s right to know was constitutionally acknowledged as one of the fundamental rights. Earlier, access to information was mere a statutory right granted through FOI Ordinance 2002. At present, FOI Ordinance is applicable at the federal level. Sindh and Balochistan have also replicated it but nowhere is it serving the desired purpose due to inherent flaws.

While KPK has promulgated an effective RTI legislation through an Ordinance, Punjab has prepared and advertised a draft seeking public comment before presenting it in the provincial assembly. The federal government is working on devising a new RTI law.

Compared to FOI Ordinance 2002, KP’s RTI Ordinance 2013 is a giant step ahead. The former Ordinance has a limited scope, charges Rs50 for each FOI request, requires a reason for wanting information and a signed affidavit that it will not be used for any other purpose, allows 21 days to respond to FOI requests and has no provision for urgent requests. It has vague, open and extensive exemptions; no provision for a harm test; no protection for whistleblowers; designates the Ombudsman - with only recommendatory powers - to hear complaints; and weaker sanctions for wrongdoers, according a brief of World Bank’s consultant.

As for the RTI Ordinance promulgated in the KP, it is a potent law, though there is always room for improvement. Following are its salient features: Extremely wide in scope: It applies to all government departments, the KP legislature, chief minister/governor secretariat, lower courts, and even to private bodies funded by government and private bodies providing public services.

Speedy and free provision of information: An applicant does not have to deposit any fee for submitting an information request. One can submit a hand-written application or send email queries to the head of concerned department (later to the Information Officer once designated). Information officers must help citizens in making requests without inquiring about the reason for requesting information. The concerned department is bound to provide information within ten working days.

For matters of life and liberty, information must be provided within two working days.Punishment for officers denying/destroying requested information: Those deliberately refusing to disclose information, or destroying information subject to an RTI request, can be punished with a fine of up to Rs50,000; a prison sentence of up to two years, or both.

Extensive proactive disclosure of information: This is the information that public bodies must publish. It includes details of the functions and services a public body provides; its organisational set-up; its staffing structure and the salaries, perks and privileges of senior officials.

Clear and narrowly defined exemptions: Legitimate exemptions to RTI are specified in the law, e.g. information that would harm national security, the economy, legally privileged information.However, the KPK law also provides a harm test, whereby if the benefit in disclosure outweighs the harm, then even exempt information must be disclosed. There is no blanketed exemption for defence and other issues of national security.

Protection of whistleblowers: No action can be taken against the whistleblower who brings to light the internal wrongdoings in good faith and in the larger public interests.Independent Information Commission: Contrary to past practice of making Ombudsman an appellant authority, an independent commission will be set up to both hear complaints and enforce compliance with the law, and also to monitor and support implementation. While the chief commissioner, a retired senior government servant, will be appointed by the government along with three members -a retired high court judge, a senior advocate and a civil society representative will be appointed by the Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court, the Bar Council and the Human Rights Commission respectively.



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