QUETTA: During the meeting of National Forum of Information Commissioners (NFIC) meeting convened by Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), the Balochistan Information Secretary remarked that Balochistan government is committed to notify Balochistan Information Commission and rules of the RTI act in next 15 days.
The meeting was held in Islamabad with the participation of serving information commissioners from the Federal, KP, Punjab, and Sindh. At the meeting, the commissioners reiterated their commitment to promoting transparency and accountability in Pakistan, with a focus on ensuring public access to information. Mr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ali, Executive Director CPDI, provided an overview of the historical and legislative landscape of the right to information and freedom of information in Pakistan. He highlighted that concrete efforts to promote RTI began in 2013, when dominant political parties in KP and Punjab competing in political arena added to the RTI implementation in their provinces. He emphasized that the emergence of RTI in Pakistan is the biggest reform in contemporary times, representing a transformation from secrecy to transparency. He demanded that Federal and provincial governments to ensure administrative and budgetary support of Information Commissions so that appellate bodies can perform their duties in optimal manner.
Mr. Hamza Shafqaat, Information Secretary, Balochistan Government said that Public Information Officers (PIO) have been appointed/ nominated in all public bodies by the order of Chief Secretary, and rules have been drafted and vetted by the law department. The Ministerial committee received the draft rules in February, and a select committee has been established to oversee the process. He further stated that the Balochistan Commission and the rules of the Balochistan RTI Act 2021 will be notified within the next 15 days, marking a significant step forward in promoting transparency and accountability in the province.
During the event, Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqui, Chief Information Commissioner, discussed the progress and challenges of the Pakistan Information Commission. He identified several key challenges, including shortage of staff and sanctioned posts, low levels of awareness among citizens, delayed appointments of information commissioner, and delays in finalizing service rules. He said that, these challenges are currently being addressed by the Commission as it continues to work towards ensuring that citizens have access to the information they need.
Ms. Farah Hamid, Chief Information Commissioner of the KP RTI Commission, expressed her concerns about the Commission’s prolonged lack of quorum, which has resulted in its dysfunction. Despite this setback, Ms. Hamid noted that the Commission is actively striving to enhance public awareness, especially among women citizens, through the use of proactive disclosure and innovative information technology. She further explained that bureaucratic hurdles, lack of funding, political uncertainty, and a lack of government commitment have created significant obstacles for the Commission, which is working diligently to address these challenges and fulfill its mandate.
Dr. Syed Jawaid Ali, Chief Information Commissioner of the Sindh Information Commission, acknowledged the challenges faced by the Commission in promoting the right to information due to a lack of public awareness. However, he highlighted recent progress, including the appointment of 19 out of 56 designated Public Information Officers and the successful resolution of 48 out of 166 complaints received in the last five months. He added that they are also improving the website of Sindh Information Commission. Dr. Ali reiterated the Commission’s commitment to promoting transparency and accountability in government and pledged its support to citizens seeking information.
Mr. Mahboob Qadir Shah, Chief Information Commissioner of Punjab Information Commission shared the landmark orders that has shattered bureaucratic inertia in Punjab. He put special emphasizes on the establishment of websites to ensure proactive disclosure of Information as per the RTI act Moreover, Information Commissions shared their progress and initiatives to implement RTI laws. Issues like non-allocation of funds, delay in appointment of information commissioners, lack of administrative support from government, delay in finalizing the working rules and subsequent shortage of staff, resistance in disclosing information and colonial mindset of public bodies were discussed at length. Proof of citizenship, issue of privacy, issue of mistaken identity, summary disposal etc. were deliberated in detailed. Commissions also stated that they have been sharing the Commission’s report with the Parliament and provincial assemblies but the reports have never been laid in the houses. Reports are being uploaded on the websites as well.
NFIC had an interactive session with representatives of vigilant civil society and journalists. During the interactive session Mr. Farhat Ullah, former senator, emphasized the critical role of information commissions in upholding democracy in Pakistan. He proposed incentivizing the use of RTI to encourage greater participation from the public, and called for fully functional information commissions. He noted the irony that while the Parliament passed the RTI law, it has attempted to exclude itself from its scope. He further recommended that government departments prioritize proactive disclosure of information. Drawing upon recent cases such as the Toshakhana case, Mr. Ullah suggested that RTI can help address democratic disruptions within the system.
Syed Raza Ali, from Peace and Justice Network highlighted the significance of strengthening enforcement mechanism of RTI and other laws in Pakistan. He indicated importance of RTI under open government partnership and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He said that the oversight mechanism of Information Commissions should be strengthened as well.