An interview with Federal Information Commissioner Zahid Abdullah 'RTI commission annual budget held up at FinMin for the last six months'
Zahid Abdullah is no stranger to Right to Information. As a civil society activist, he is a renowned RTI advocate and a champion of human rights, having worked with different non-profit organisations including the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives where he played a key role in helping Punjab, KP and federal governments in drafting their respective right to information laws. He is also author of 'Disabled by Society' and 'The Wise Man'.
In November last year, he was appointed as the federal Information commissioner, one of the three commissioners appointed to the Federal Information Commission by the PTI government.
In this discussion, BR Research picks his brains on the progress made thus far, the shortcomings of the law, the commission's plans hence forth, and the demand/supply aspects of transparency.
BR Research: We have been hearing that the RTI commission still does not have an office of its own. What then is the current status of federal RTI implementation?
Zahid Abdullah: The notification of the members of federal RTI commission was announced in November 2018. But since then we have not been given an office, nor do we have any staff. We are operating from a single room in the information service academy of the Information Ministry. We did not even receive salaries for the first eight months.
Despite these handicaps, we have been working since day one. Coming from civil society, we were proactive enough to start working in absence of staff or a registrar office. Over the last year, we have drafted the procedural rules for processing appeals under the RTI Act, 2017. The law also empowers us to define the schedule of charges for the various categories of information sought, which we have drafted and notified during the period.
We were initially supported by the staff of Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability which supports FAFEN network; they also developed our website that is now up and running.
Only after September 2019, were we given some support staff, four to be precise: a steno typist, an assistant and two 'naib qasids'. But this is insufficient, since handling of the appeals alone is quite a job.
The process requires that notices be first sent in, followed by call for hearing and then pronouncement of detailed orders. To date we have received 235 complaints, of which we have resolved more than hundred. For the rest, notices have already been sent out to the respective public bodies. We also issued up to 20 orders, of which 10 are already uploaded on the website.
BRR: How many posts does the commission require and are these too many in relation to other RTI commissions. And where exactly is the proverbial file stuck?
ZA: We had asked for 36 posts last year because we need to run the registrar office and hold hearings. The demand for these posts is in line with the sanctioned posts of Punjab and KP right to information commission offices.
The establishment division recommended it in August this year and sent it to the finance ministry for sanctioning. However, even though the parliament has approved our budget of Rs70 million for the current fiscal year, the finance ministry has not yet sanctioned these posts, and is instead telling us to do everything through IT.
Those in Finance Ministry are kicking the can down the road, sending file back to Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to engage with the Ministry of Information Technology. Little do they realise that functions of commission, especially, functions of registrar office cannot be performed through online mechanisms. I wonder whether anyone at Finance Ministry has tried to understand requirements of the commission under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017.
They need to realise that RTI commission has a lot on its plate, and it needs support staff. So far all of that work, be it website development or writing and sending notices is being done by us (the three information commissioners), whereas it is the job of registrar office. Then there is training of public officials and other aspects of the programme such as awareness programmes where we have held awareness raising sessions in universities, press clubs, and legal bars in Punjab, KP, and Islamabad.
BRR: You mentioned that several orders have been issued subsequent to hearing. How have public bodies reacted to this practice? Do other government institutions support the RTI?
ZA: Public bodies tend to ask for exemption even for basic information that they ought to disclose proactively such as audit reports. But you have to realise that we have had 72 years of secrecy culture in this country, which will take time to change. As public bodies begin to appreciate that the RTI law overrides all other laws, they are beginning to learn.
For example, the first of our orders was against the Federal Board of Revenue which was later upheld by the Islamabad High Court. It so happened that a citizen had asked for details of sanctioned posts, vacancies, gender wise employment, and other employee details of FBR.
FBR claimed exemption on grounds that this information need not be brought in public domain, using a certain provision of the law that protects law enforcement agencies from giving out such information relating to ongoing investigations. In our view, however, the information asked from the FBR did not affect any investigation, and accordingly we passed the order asking the FBR to furnish that information.
Now the order of the RTI commission must either be implemented by the public body in question, unless it files a petition in a high court. The FBR chose to challenge it and filed a petition. But the IHC upheld our decision in the first hearing.
BRR: To what degree are federal public bodies following the federal RTI law? Have they started giving proactive disclosures?
ZA: As per the RTI law, there are 10 categories of information that public bodies must proactively disclose on their own, on their website and through their annual reports. The implementation of that law has been poor so far. The commission is currently writing letters to public bodies advising them to proactively disclose this information, whereas the orders that have been issued so far have also stressed on the same.
BRR: When will the annual RTI assessment report come out?
ZA: We are required to issue two bi-annual reports to be submitted to the parliament. The first of these reports, which happens to be the annual report for the fiscal year ending June 2019 has been finalised and will be submitted to the parliament over the next ten days.
BRR: Is it true that minutes of the meetings in which a policy decision is made by a public body are protected under our current federal RTI law? As an RTI advocate what is your view?
ZA: The minutes are indeed protected. And this is the weakness of Pakistan's RTI law. The Indian RTI law allows for the disclosure of the minutes but in Pakistan these are exempted because the bureaucracy in Pakistan maintains that you should evaluate our decisions and not evaluate the process through which those decisions were taken.
However, I believe that principles of transparency demand that both noting on the files and minutes of the meetings are important because they shed light on the decision making process, the voices and arguments of both sides - those who agreed and disagreed with the decisions and various alternatives proposed. It is important for the law to allow this because it strengthens the hands of the honest, upright hard-working bureaucrats who have integrity; because he or she knows that sooner or later truth will vindicate him.
BRR: Do you think transparency of information is more of a supply side problem or a demand side problem?
ZA: The problem exists on both sides. Governments everywhere in the world are hesitant to share information; some more, some less but that is the general trend. When they are in power, they do not like to supply information. But when they are out of power, they are very keen to get their hands on it.
In my view, Pakistan has an oral culture; if people used to gather around fire to tell stories in the old days, today we gather around TV and 'dhabas' to share our stories. But stories have a way of exaggeration through the use of anecdotes, metaphors and poetry, while paying little heed to facts, figures and hard pieces of information. Talk shows on the TV are also full of stories and guess work.
But citizens also have to realise that when they demand certain information from a public body in writing then those public bodies also have to reply in writing. And that in itself has its importance because in case of request denial the burden of proof falls on the public body.