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January 22, 2020

RTI Law: PIC warns of contempt as Senate declines info about its staff

Top Story

January 22, 2020

ISLAMABAD: Chairman Senate has locked horns with Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) over the question of access to information regarding strength of the Senate staff as the former has declined to share declaring it “sensitive” and the latter said refusal in this respect will be treated as contempt of court. The PIC has judicial power to enforce its directives.

Going by Right of Access to Information Act 2017, the Senate Secretariat is legally obliged to proactively share this information relating staff through its website which it has termed sensitive instead. Incidentally, Senate itself has passed the Act and its Section 2 (C) declared that “The National Assembly and the Senate including their secretariats, committees and members” fall in the domain of this Act meaning thereby they are bound to provide the information if demanded by any citizen of Pakistan.

However, in the case under question, an undated letter of Chairman Senate sent to PIC has ruled that since “work of Parliament is not only extremely significant but also highly sensitive………I hereby declare the record of Senate Secretariat employees, their sanctioned strength and related numbers, their perks and privileges, incumbency/vacancy position and all other related and ancillary matters as classified.” This comes from the Senate that keep summoning information from public bodies as and when desired by senators and emphasises that it is right of public representatives to know that how taxpayers money is used by them. Senate itself is a public body.

The PIC had sought explanation from Senate Secretariat reacting on the complainant of Mukhtar Ahmed Ali. On May 6 last year, he had asked seven questions through Right of Access to Information Act 2017. He had sought information regarding total sanctioned strength of Senate staff, vacant positions, number of staff hired on contract, types of newly created positions, strength of female staff, number of disables and transgender employed and a certified copy of latest-approved services rules.

As he didn’t hear back from Senate Secretariat, he went in appeal to PIC which sent a couple of notices in five months but none from the respondent department either appeared or bothered to reply. In proceedings that followed, PIC observed that the information under question should have been proactively disclosed on Senate website but it is being hidden from a citizen instead. “The Commission notes with grave concern the non-serious attitude of the Public Information Officer (Additional Secretary of Senate Maj. (R) Syed Hasnain Haider) who has neither responded to the two notices of the Commission nor appeared in two hearings,” PIC deplored.

The Senate, it further noted in verdict, has failed to provide any cogent reason 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 Senate of Pakistan 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.

Incidentally, FBR had offered the same response that information about staff is “classified” when the same questions were sent by Mukhtar to tax authorities, however, the PIC had ruled in favour of the applicant. As FBR had challenged PIC verdict before Islamabad High Court, the court had upheld PIC verdict. Concluding the matter on December 30, 2019, PIC directed Senate Secretariat to provide the requested information to the appellant not later than 10 working days and also upload this on its website as a legal requirement prescribed in Section 5 of Right of Access to Information Act, 2017. The verdict was handed by Chief Information Commissioner Muhammad Azam, Information Commissioner Zahid Abdullah and Information Commissioner Fawad Malik.

Instead of complying with the PIC order, Senate Secretariat wrote to PIC demanding it withdrew the verdict as chairman Senate using his authority has ruled this record as “classified.”

In response, Chief Information Commissioner refused to do that and noted that “this blanket exemption to all record is tantamount to declaring that the Secretariat of Senate is not a public body whereas, citizens of Pakistan through their elected representatives (Parliament declared the Secretariat of the Senate of Pakistan to be a public body under Section 2 (C) of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017.”

At the end, PIC also reminded to Senate Secretariat that only recourse available to it going in appeal to Islamabad High Court. And if neither appeal is filed nor the information shared as directed, it will “be dealt with in the same way as contempt of court” the powers vested in PIC under Section 20 (2) of the Right of Access to Information Act.