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August 8, 2019

FBR directed to provide information under Right of Access to Information Act 2017

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August 8, 2019

ISLAMABAD: The Federal Information Commission (FIC) has directed the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) to provide the information requested by a citizen under Right of Access to Information Act 2017 as the revenue board has failed to give any cogent arguments for withholding the requested information.

The FBR was requested to provide certified information under Right of Access to Information Act 2017 about total vacancies in the revenue board against different pay-scales (1-22), total number of daily-wagers, total number of female staff members, total number of persons with disabilities and total number of transgender persons. However, the FBR authorities refused to share the requisite information while invoking the exemption clause of the Act.

Upon refusal from FBR, complainant Mukhtar Ahmed Ali filed an appeal before the Federal Information Commission on May 06, 2019. According to Mr Mukhtar, he submitted an information request to the Chairman, Federal Board of Revenue, vide letter number RTI/info Req/2019/114 under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 on April 10, 2019. However, on April 29, 2019, the FBR denied access to the requested information by quoting Section 16 (b) (iii) of the Act.

The Commission after hearing both sides, concluded that even a plain reading of the requested information shows that it belongs to the category of information which public bodies are legally bound to proactively disclose under Section 5 (a) of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017. The information which should have been proactively disclosed by the public body is being protected from sharing with a citizen in the name of ‘not revealing the identity of a confidential source of information’.

The Commission in its decision says, “The points under the consideration of the commission are, firstly, the request of access to information which should have been proactively disclosed through web site and the application of an exemption clause which is entirely irrelevant and misplaced for the denial of the access to the requested information. Secondly, the lack of preparation on the part of the Respondent as he did not submit before the commission record pertaining to the correspondence with his seniors seeking approval for providing requested information and the response of the officers in this regard.”

“Federal Board of Revenue, other than merely invoking an exemption clause of the Act, has not provided any arguments for withholding requested information from the citizen. The requested information can only be withheld from a citizen by invoking an exemption clause on justifiable grounds. The commission is of the view that mere referral to an exemption clause does not mean that a public body has acted in accordance with the provisions of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017”, reads the Commission’s decision.

The Commission further says, “While FBR has failed to provide any cogent arguments for withholding the requested information, benefits of bringing this information in the public domain are too obvious to be missed. The requested information may reveal whether or not FBR is properly staffed to carry out its functions and responsibilities. Whether or not job quota in a federal public body for persons with disabilities, minorities and residents of different provinces is being observed in letter and spirit, to mention just a couple of examples”.

“Public participation in the affairs of the government is key to good governance and citizens can have greater participation in the affairs of the government through the exercise of their right to information. Instead of denying access to the requested information by referring to an exemption clause without providing sound arguments, FBR is legally obligated to proactively share this information through its web site to ensure greater public participation in its functioning”, says the decision.

“It is incumbent upon the designated Public Information Officers to submit all the record before the commission at the time of hearing. Any correspondence seeking approval for sharing the requested information and the response thereof is important to determine the role played by officers in the process of deciding on the information requests and fixing responsibility in delaying or denying access to the requested information. As the buck needs to stop somewhere, the commission will fix responsibility on the Public Information Officer in case no communication pertaining to seeking approval is submitted before the commission”, reads the Commission’s decision.

The information sought by the complainant, through application dated 19/02/2019, is as follows:

a) Total sanctioned strength of staff members in your organization (category-wise) against different positions/ pay-scales i.e. from pay scale 1 to 22 (category-wise).

b) Total vacancies in your organization against different pay-scales/ positions (category-wise); and dates since which these positions have been lying vacant.

c) Number of staff members who are not regular but have been engaged on daily-wage basis or through short-term or long-term contracts against various positions/ pay-scales (category-wise).

d) Number and types of positions created anew since January 1, 2017.

e) Total number of female staff members (category-wise) against various positions/ pay-scales. The response may distinguish between the short-term/ temporary staff members and regular ones.

f) Total number of persons with disabilities working in your organization against various positions/ pay-scales (category-wise). The response may distinguish between the short-term/ temporary staff members and regular ones.

g) Total number of transgender persons working in your organization against various positions/ pay-scales (category-wise). The response may distinguish between the short-term/ temporary staff members and regular ones.

h) A certified copy of the latest approved Service Rules of your organization.

However, in response to the application, the FBR vide letter dated 29/04/2019 denied access to the requested information by stating as under: “I am directed to convey that your application has been examined by the competent authority and is of the view that the right to information under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 is subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law, whereas, the requisite information is exempt from disclosure under Section 16 (b) (iii) of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 which states that: The information may be exempt if its disclosure is likely to -Reveal the identity of a confidential source of information”.

After hearing both the sides, the Commission directed the respondent (FBR) to provide the requested information to the Appellant at the earliest, but in any case, not later than 20 working days of the receipt of this order. Furthermore, the Respondent is directed to take immediate steps to proactively share through the web site all categories of information mentioned in Section 5 of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 and submit the compliance report to the commission by 10/09/2019.

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