Right to Information Legislation in Pakistan

Explore Pakistan's journey towards transparency with robust RTI laws. Discover what are the challenges in its implementation and how these laws empower citizens and hold public bodies accountable.

Salman Kundi
By Salman Kundi 3 Min Read
rti - right to information legislation in pakistan

“Freedom of information stands as a cornerstone of all freedoms upheld by the United Nations, a fundamental human right,” declared Resolution 59-1 during the First Session of the UN General Assembly in 1946.

In 2002, Pakistan took a significant step by enacting the Freedom of Information Ordinance, becoming the pioneer in South Asia. However, this legislation falls short on various fronts, particularly in its implementation mechanisms and extensive list of exemptions. Similar laws were subsequently passed in Balochistan (2005) and Sindh (2006). However, these mirrored the weaknesses of the federal ordinance, failing to adequately ensure citizens’ access to information held by public bodies. Regrettably, these Pakistani laws find themselves ranking in the bottom 20 percent on the Right to Information (RTI) index, a global assessment conducted by the Canada-based Centre for Law and Democracy.

In 2010, Pakistan took a constitutional stride with the 18th Amendment, recognizing the right to information as a fundamental constitutional right. This amendment introduced Article 19-A, affirming that “every citizen shall have the right to access information in all matters of public importance, subject to regulations and reasonable restrictions imposed by the law.” Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) emerged as the trailblazer, promulgating an effective RTI Ordinance in August 2013, which was subsequently enshrined into law in November 2013. Following suit, the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 further fortified the RTI landscape. These provincial laws stand out globally as exemplars in RTI legislation, with the KP RTI Ordinance ranking third in the RTI global ranking, scoring 137 out of 150 points, and the Punjab RTI law achieving 119 out of 150 points.

Despite the commendable strides of K-P and Punjab in upholding constitutional obligations, the federal, Sindh, and Balochistan governments continue to lag behind in ensuring citizens’ right to information through effective RTI laws.

Opposition to the RTI regime in Pakistan is not unexpected, given that RTI laws serve as instruments for transparency and accountability. Essential principles underpinning robust RTI legislation include maximum disclosure, streamlined access to information, limited exemption scope, no financial deterrents for citizens seeking information, and whistleblower protection. Under the K-P and Punjab RTI laws, information commissions have been established to safeguard these principles. Notably, the K-P government has demonstrated a commitment to reversing amendments that previously exempted its assembly from RTI law, a crucial step in shielding these laws from forces favoring secrecy.

Swift and effective mechanisms for implementing information commission decisions are imperative. Constitutional courts should serve solely as courts of appeal against information commission decisions, as high courts possess powers under Article 199 of the Constitution to safeguard fundamental rights. Ambiguities in the KP RTI Act regarding the appeals process require prompt attention from the provincial assembly.

The role of Public Information Officers (PIOs), designated by each public body under the KP and Punjab RTI laws, is pivotal in law implementation. PIOs serve as the primary contact points between citizens and public bodies. Governments and public bodies should support PIOs in proactively disclosing information to the public. This necessitates significant reforms and modernization of traditional record-keeping mechanisms by public bodies. Digitizing public records enables the timely provision of information and empowers PIOs to fulfill their obligations without undue restrictions imposed by bureaucratic protocols.

With the anticipated surge in information requests under RTI laws as citizens become more aware, proactive disclosure emerges as a critical aspect of both Punjab and KP RTI laws. Public bodies should proactively disclose as much information as possible using digital platforms. This proactive approach will alleviate the burden on PIOs and minimize the need for individual information requests. Therefore, expediting the digitization of public records is imperative for enhancing transparency and accountability.

The author is an HRCP member and a practicing lawyer, currently serving as an advocate in the Dera Ismail Khan High Court.

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