ISLAMABAD: In February this year, Aftab Alam, dispatched Right to Information requests to Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and three of its subordinate departments: state-run television, state-run radio and the Audit Bureau of Circulation.
Right of Access to Information (RAI) Act, 2017, requires them to respond within ten working days. It hasn’t been done even after the passage of four months.
Pakistan Information Commission is a forum to lodge complaints against the departments refusing information. The commission is composed of a chief information commissioner and two information commissioners. Although they were appointed six months back, they don’t have either proper office or staff to perform their functions. The commissioners haven’t been paid salaries either. The government has yet to decide how much pay they will get. Again, the Ministry of Information is the line ministry to deal with these matters.
A lawyer by qualification and researcher by profession, Aftab wrote letters to prime minister, information minister, finance minister and their secretaries reminding them of their responsibilities to make the information commission functional through allocating it proper budget and staff.
He dropped an application through Pakistan Citizens Portal launched by PTI government. On March 21, he was informed that the action on his complaint has been initiated but nothing has changed on ground as yet.
Finally, he moved Islamabad High Court for holding the government to account in this regard. Waqas Naeem, a data journalist and a trainer, is another petitioner. He had moved the court before Aftab. In the petition, he has mentioned that he sent RTI applications to Election Commission of Pakistan, Federal Investigation Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
His applications are one and a half years old. No response. As the Information Commission is non-functional, he has no forum to lodge complaint against these departments. The court has sought answer from the government on these petitions.
The RTI Act was passed in October 2017 by the previous government. It took a year to appoint information commissioners, nevertheless, the commission is unable to carry out its duties. The information commissioners have been allocated an ill-equipped room of the Information Academy situated at Zero Point, Islamabad. No telephone, no photo copier, no fax and no website. The supporting staff has not been allocated as yet.
The commissioners are unaware of their salary structure even after the passage of six months. The summary in this respect was included in the cabinet agenda twice but couldn’t be taken up which shows the priority of the government towards transparent governance. Information commissioners in Punjab and Sindh are given package of MP-1. At federal level, this package is being offered to chief commissioner only whereas MP-2 for the information commissioners. Dispute in this respect is delaying the final decision.
Likewise, supporting staff hasn’t been provided as yet. It is notwithstanding the fact that new fresh hiring is required. The employees from other departments are to be deputed for the purpose. Secretary Information Shafqat Jalil acknowledged the delay but said it would be done very soon. He said the budget for the commission has been approved, nevertheless, the salary issue is still pending. He said the summary is on agenda for today’s (Tuesday) cabinet meeting.
Meanwhile, more than 60 complaints have been piled up with the commission. Most of them are against public hospitals, Federal Board of Revenue, Civil Aviation Authority, Port Qasim Authority and different federal ministries. The complainants don’t have any public information available as where to file the complaint. Most of them have done so by locating the phone numbers of the commissioners for dropping their complaints.
Odds apart, the information commission is struggling to perform. It has registered the domain name for setting up website. Also, letters have been written to federal public bodies for designating Public Information Officers (PIOs). It has also taken up the first complaint, which is against Pakistan Customs which has not provided information pertaining to the release of sale tax refunds to importers. Pakistan Customs collects sales tax on imported goods and adjusts it later on. The department makes public total amount of refunds released but information about the companies and individuals who receive the refund amounts is not made public, the complainant said. He sought that information which was denied.