Punjab Government Invites Comments on Punjab Freedom of Information Act

The government of Punjab has invited comments from the public on its
draft ‘Punjab Freedom of Information Act’, which has been approved in
principle by the Punjab cabinet. It is a step in the right direction
but major changes are required if the objectives of improving
transparency, accountability and governance are to be met.

Overall the intention behind the bureaucratic drafting seems to be to
complicate matters and leave loopholes and ambiguities. The critical
sections in this regards are sections 4 and 13. In section 4, the law
provides for providing information proactively on routine matters like
functions and duties, laws, rules and regulations, budget allocation
and expenditure, details of subsidies, permits and concessions. This
information is already available in the public domain.

Under section 13, information will not be provided if it is likely to
cause harm to national security, public order, international
relations, privacy interest, legally privileged information,
intellectual property rights, life of a person, prevention or
detection of crime, ability of the government to manage the economy
and effective formulation of a policy.

However, sub-section 13 provides relief since the commission may
override the Public Information Officers’ decision of not providing
information. This section is probably an oversight as it empowers the
commission to obtain and divulge any information even if it has been
declared secret by the provincial government. A new section is
required to ensure that the commission or the PIOs do not provide
information that has been notified by the government as classified or

The main purpose of the law is to provide the public information in
which it is interested. Sadly the right to information (RTI) laws will
not provide such information. From the police the public is interested
in obtaining a copy of the FIR, investigation details, copy of the
challan, whereabouts of missing persons, access to prisoners, human
rights excesses, crime statistics and access to police station

From the patwari the public requires information about property and
access to the patwari’s register. With regard to procurement the
public requires information on advertisement, evaluations, award of
contract, contract implementation, payments made and procurement
files. In case of development projects the interest is in obtaining a
copy of the PC-1, the details of schemes, donor agreements, survey
data, progress on implementation of schemes, constituency-wise
expenditure and total expenditure at the district level.

In case of government offices and officials the public is interested
in postings and transfers, promotions, vacancies, recruitment details,
enquiries, special audits, medical bills, list of vehicles and their
utilisation, TA/DA claimed by officials, property held by the
officials and their families, service statistics and access to files
containing such information.

In terms of provincial assemblies the public is interested in the
assets of parliamentarians, expenditure incurred on parliamentarians,
development funds provided to parliamentarians. Regarding political
parties and the NGOs the interest is on financing and expenditure and
their activities. It is not clear what information can be provided on
the armed forces and the judiciary.

The other key stakeholders are the media, consultants and research
organisations whose information needs are very extensive. It is
doubtful that under such laws the PIOs and government offices will be
able to satisfy their information needs.

It is recommended that the proposed act should include a section
titled ‘on the spot information’ which clearly indicates information
that can be provided immediately. This could be included as a schedule
which should be updated by the commission. A committee comprising
civil society and other stakeholders needs to be constituted to
provide recommendations to the commission on this point.

On the administrative and operational side the proposed commission is
to be headed by a retired civil servant, retired judge and a member
from the civil society to be nominated by a committee comprising the
chief minister and the leader of the opposition. The government will
appoint the chief information commissioner from amongst the three.
There is no mention of including women.

The act proposes to assign the oversight and management functions to
the same commissioners. The commission needs to be expanded to about
10 honorary members of whom at least four should be women. The
oversight and management functions need to be separated under three
paid commissioners.

The act proposes to appoint public information officers in offices.
The main concern to be addressed here is how the applicant will get
access to the PIOs. Given the security situation it is almost
impossible to enter government offices. However, some respite is
provided in section 11(1) under which the request can be submitted to
any officer other than the PIOs. This bypasses PIOs. The PIOs a cannot
provide information unless cleared by the head. Hence the head should
also be fined in case of non-provision in addition to the PIOs.

The complaint process is complex; a complainant at the union, tehsil
and district levels cannot pursue his or hers complaint with the
commission at the Lahore level. How can a complainant attend an
enquiry at Lahore at his or her own expense? A grievance officer
should also be notified at least at the tehsil and district levels.
The courts’ jurisdiction has been curtailed under the act as a court
cannot take cognizance of the offence unless authorised by the

Providing information may take up to 42 days and on non-provision
another 60 days if the applicant submits a complaint to the
commission. This excludes the time for transfer of application and
internal review. In section 10(6) information relating to life and
liberty is to be provided within two days. It is not elaborated what
constitutes such information.

The budget of the commission should be a charged expenditure and
determined by the special committee of parliament since the government
will not allocate adequate funds for it to function effectively. The
fine to be imposed is yet to be prescribed.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s much trumpeted ‘Right to
Information Ordinance, 2013’ is more an ‘information withholding’
ordinance. Sections 14 to 22 are all about information that is exempt
from being disclosed. A half-hearted attempt has been made to protect
whistleblowers. The KP commission will be headed by a retired senior
government servant and members will include a retired judge. There is
no mention of women and other stakeholders.

A commissioner can be removed if the other two commissioners agree.
There is no mention of how the chief information commissioner will be
removed. There is no sign of a new Pakistan in the content of the
ordinance. The ordinance suffers from the flaws highlighted above in
the proposed Punjab law.

More recently the federal government’s draft Freedom of Information
Act also aims at curtailing information rather than facilitating
access to it. It also proposes imposition of a fine of upto Rs10,000
if a request for information is deemed to be malicious or frivolous.

In conclusion there is no need to set up another ineffective,
bureaucratic commission staffed by government servants. It will only
waste public money and provide the same useless and outdated
information that is already widely available online.

The writer is an international development expert. Email: [email protected]

Source:The News

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