Right to information tool nearly dormant in KP

It is said citizens who do approach the RTI Commission for information usually get a response after months

PESHAWAR: Jawad Azam, who hails from Charsadda, was certain of getting a quick response from the Right to Information Commission on why he was rejected from a job in Water and Sanitation Services Peshawar (WSSP).

But what followed next made him lose hope in the commission, resolving to never approach the authority, the purpose of which is to provide answers to citizens regarding public bodies.

After being rejected the position of an information technology officer he had applied for, Azam wrote to WSSP asking for the reason. When the department did not respond, Azam took to the RTI Commission to file a complaint against WSSP.

The RTI Commission finally got back to him after three to four months, only to tell Azam he was rejected from the job in WSSP as a less experienced candidate was appointed instead of him.

Azam believes he would have got an answer sooner had he taken the matter to court.

The citizens’ right to information allows them to ask public bodies for information regarding their staff, services and even raise question on their budget and expenditures. This right of the citizens is based on the principle that information does not only belong to the government but to the people as well.

The RTI law is present on the federal level, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh. However, the RTI Commission was first set up in KP and then in Punjab. 

Decline in trust

The government departments or public bodies have seen a decrease in the requests they received in 2016-17.

According to an annual report shared by the RTI Commission, the request for information to public bodies went down by 19 per cent in 2016-17. A total of 2,859 people filed a request in 2016-17 with various public bodies, as opposed to 3,522 requests filed the year before that.

One of the reasons for the decrease in the number of requests to public bodies is the slow pace of application processing, Centre for Governance and Public Accountability (CGPA) Programme Manager Malik Masood tells Geo.tv.

The delay in Azam’s case was not something new as Masood says three to four months is the standard duration that the commission takes to process an application.

The RTI Commission could hold public bodies answerable, but it does not have rules set to punish those individuals which do not provide the required information, Masood says. The departments know that the RTI Commission would not act against them if they fail to provide information, he adds.

“The government failed to implement the RTI law in its true spirit,” the CGPA official says. “In 2015, the KP government even exempted the provincial assembly from the RTI law but pressure from the civil society made them revoke their decision.”

Masood believes that every law has some discrepancies which are removed over time. But, he adds, in the case of the RTI law it has not happened yet as the amendments that were proposed a year and a half ago have yet to be implemented.

As per data shared by the RTI Commission, in the past four years, they have fined 11 public information officers, out of whom only one paid the penalty.

Addressing requests at hand

Data shows it is true that the number of applications filed to the public bodies has gone down, but there is also a brighter side to the situation.

A sign of improvement has been noticed in the number of applications addressed by the government departments.

According to the annual RTI Commission report, the number of requests addressed by public bodies during 2016-17 went up by 17 per cent. The report states that 1,546 applications were addressed by public bodies, which is 54 per cent of the total that were filed. The percentage was 37 in 2015-16.

Moreover, 42 per cent of the applications filed to public bodies in 2016-17 went to the RTI Commission as complaints, contrary to the 50 per cent in 2015-16.

Among various departments which received applications from information seekers, KP Elementary and Secondary Education Department ranked first with 504 requests from citizens, which were nearly 18 per cent of the overall requests in 2016-17. On second stand autonomous bodies that rank second with 12 per cent of applications, while health department got 9.3 per cent and home & tribal affairs department received 8.6 per cent of the applications.

Data shared by the department reveals that from 2014 onwards 10,749 requests were filed in various departments. Out of the count, the public bodies provided information on 6,825 application, while 3,826 requests converted into complaints.

Knowing the right to information

But, the commission has been working on spreading awareness regarding the RTI law. RTI Commission Chief Commissioner Azmat Hanif Orakzai tells Geo.tv that they have arranged a series of basic awareness drives in the remote areas of KP.

Moreover, he adds, public service messages on the law have also been aired on Radio Khyber Pakhtunkhwa so that more people know about it.

Besides, Azmat Hanif says they have also worked on making the public information officers more efficient.

'Culture of secrecy inherited from British'

However, the chief commissioner says, it was difficult to ascertain the reason behind a drop in the number of requests. He adds that it also depends on the public whether they want to seek information or not.

About government departments holding back information, Azmat Hanif says there is a culture of secrecy there. “The culture of secrecy in public offices was inherited by the British, who would restrict information to their circle.”

Although the public information officers are fined if they do not provide the information, the chief commissioner says the penalty does not free the officer concerned from the responsibility.