Thursday April 25, 2024

Info Commission: Two-year report reveals transparency challenges

By Umar Cheema
December 09, 2020

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Information Commission has received the highest number of complaints against the departments, according to the first-ever performance report of the commission.

The report has covered a two-year period – November 2018 to November 2020 – enlisting the problems faced by the commission and the performance it has made. For the three-member commission, there was no functional office in the first 19 months; it operated from a one-room allocated in the Information Academy Building situated near Zero Point. It took eight months for the members to receive their first salary. Even the website was developed by an NGO which also provided staff in the beginning other than helping process the appeals.

Despite all these odds, the commission has done beyond its capacity towards the promotion of peoples’ constitutional right of access to information and transparency in government. In the duration of two years, it has received 682 complaints against different departments out of which 257 were resolved and the information was provided to the appellants to their satisfaction. The remaining appeals are at different stages of resolution as the hearings are conducted thrice a week.

The highest number of complaints were received against the Ministry of Defence (37) followed by Supreme Court of Pakistan (36), Cantonment Boards (25), Ministry of Finance (21), Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (18), Capital Development Authority (17), Federal Investigation Authority (15), Federal Board of Revenue (14) and Ministry of Interior (12). Eleven complaints each were filed against the Election Commission of Pakistan, State Bank of Pakistan, National Database and Registration Authority, the Ministry of Law & Justice and National Bank of Pakistan. Ten complaints each were filed against the Cabinet Division, Ministry of Climate Change, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority and National Assembly.

The commission has issued as many as 139 orders on the appeals. The highest number of orders, six each, were issued against the Ministry of Interior, ECP, NADRA and CDA followed by four each against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, FIA, Cabinet Division, Ministry of Law & Justice, Metropolitan Corporation, NBP and Cantonment Boards. If the public body doesn’t challenge the order in the high court for 30 days after its announcement, the commission issues a show-cause notice for non-compliance. So far, only the President of Pakistan, Ministry of Law & Justice, ECP, SNGPL and NTDC have challenged its orders.

Meanwhile, the Senate of Pakistan instead of complying with the order sent a letter to the Commission stating that “Chairman Senate is authorized to declare any, or, all records of the Senate Secretariat as classified.” The information requested from the Senate pertained to the total number of sanctioned and vacant posts , quota for the disabled which was declared by the Commission as public information under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017.

Overall analysis of the complaints suggest that the information demanded by citizens was related to audit paras/ reports of public bodies, legislative bills laid in the Parliament, publications of assets statements submitted by lawmakers to ECP, FIRs filed under cybercrime laws, copies of enquiry reports against officials, details of assets of judges and officers along with their salaries, perks and privileges etc.

Through its detailed orders, the Commission established certain principles like that bodies receiving any support in cash or kind from the federal government will be considered public bodies thus answerable as SNGPL and Islamabad Club. Also, it was ruled that the principle of attorney-client privileged communication is not applicable when fee paid to the lawyers is from public funds. Further, it was declared that the public bodies have to record reasons for relying on exemptions clause and mere reference to that will not be sufficient. It also declared that the constitutional offices like ECP and President of Pakistan are not out of the ambit of this transparency law.