Monday June 17, 2024

Over-ruling NA speaker: RTI Commission directs sharing info about PM’s salary, allowances

By Umar Cheema
February 11, 2021

ISLAMABAD: Three months after Imran Khan became Prime Minister in 2018, a citizen wrote to the National Assembly Speaker, Asad Qaiser. He wanted to judge the newly-elected chief executive of the country through his past practices to determine how regular he was in attending the NA sessions and what amount of salary as well as other benefits he received in return.

Sher Muhammad Chishti, therefore, decided to seek out details using the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017. “Respectfully it is stated that I have some knowledge about our past rulers available in different books written by many authors. Now I intend to collect information from different quarters about our present ruler Mr Imran Khan Niazi, Prime Minister of Pakistan. The following information is not available anywhere except your office which may kindly be sent to me at your earliest convenience. I shall be highly thankful to you for this favor,” his application reads.

He asked for his attendance record from 2013 to 2018 together with the benefits/salary he claimed. The National Assembly, in return, demanded the copy of his Computerized National Identity Card to determine whether the requester is Pakistani citizen or not. Chishti provided the copy, hoping he was now just a letter away from the desired information. He was wrong. The subsequent letter he received carried the website link of the NA and he was advised to search through it for the requisite details.

The NA website uploads the attendance record of each day of each session but that doesn’t show the list of absent members; only those marked presents are enlisted. However, there is no record of salary/benefits claimed by individual members.

Again, being on the website doesn’t necessarily mean the information is retrievable and the same happened with regard to the attendance sheets. The experience of the applicant was not different as he found that the links pertaining to the first session from June 1 to June 5, 2013, up to 22nd session from May 1 to May 19, 2015 was not working. This was the time when dharna was organized in D-Chowk and Parliament was attacked. In addition, the access to information regarding the benefits claimed by Imran Khan in the past five years was refused forthwith through a ruling by the NA Speaker.

Chishti moved Pakistan Information Commission, an appellant forum against the public bodies denying the information promised under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017. As the NA Secretariat was put on notice, it took a position and the designated officer of NA Secretariat told Pakistan Information Commission that “the Ruling or Decision of Honorable Speaker may not be considered as a decision of an individual but the consensus of the Assembly and the same should be respected. He further submitted that the decision of Honorable Speaker can only be overturned through a motion in the assembly under Rule 28, which reflects that sanctity attached to the decision of Honorable Speaker.”

During proceeding on the matter under reference, the three-member Commission maintained that disclosure of information about the payments (salary/allowances) paid to MNAs doesn’t warrant any life threat to the recipients and it is rather a matter of “direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers” as observed also by the UK High Court in a hearing on the issue of payments made to British Members of Parliament. In fact, the Commission further observed, that the payments made to MNAs are in public interest as citizens will be able to know how their taxes are being put to use which will lead to reducing trust deficit between citizens and their public institutions.

Due to the foregoing, the Commission refused to accept the Speaker’s ruling and directed the NA Secretariat to provide the requested information about the payments made to Imran Khan and the attendance record for the time period mentioned in the request, within ten working days. In addition, the NA Secretariat was directed to conduct an accessibility audit of its website and submit its compliance report to the Commission. The order was passed on January 18 and more than 10 working days have passed. The complainant wasn’t available to comment whether he has received the information or not. The Commission has judicial authority to enforce its directives. Keeping that in view, the NA Secretariat could move to appeal against the Commission’s order before Islamabad High Court as otherwise non-compliance of the Commission’s order will be tantamount to the contempt of the court.