Swat: The 2013 Right to Information law that allows citizens to access public documents and record has yet to be extended to the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), violating the fundamental right of citizens to access information as enshrined in the constitution, say civil society representatives in Swat.

PATA consists of seven districts: Swat, Dir, Malakand, Shangla, Buner, Chitral, and Kohistan. Any law extended to PATA must come directly from the provincial governor of Khyber Pakhtunkwa (KP) and is subject to approval from the president of Pakistan.

Hazir Gul, a social activist and member of Swat Civil Society Network, met KP Chief Minister Parvez Khattak a year ago seeking extension of the law to PATA region. He said back in 2013 when the law was passed, he filed a request to seek information about a project under the KP Small and Medium Enterprises Limited.

“After the recent wave of terrorism in Swat, many development schemes have been initiated and the public want to know their details but they couldn’t since the law is yet to be extended to PATA,” Gul said. He said the district information department could establish a mechanism for proactive disclosure of information even if the federal government is reluctant to extend the law.

The regions under PATA joined Pakistan in 1969 prior to which all districts of the Malakand division were princely states. Saleem Khan, a local of Swat, said that the region’s people have the same identity and identity cards as Pakistani citizens elsewhere. “Why then is the government treating us as ‘unequal’ citizens by not extending the same laws to PATA as the rest of Pakistan?”

According to the RTI Commission’s annual report from 2016, requests from PATA are not responded to. The commission’s job is to handle complaints from the public about the government’s noncompliance with RTI requests.

“Most of the RTI requests for information are received from PATA but with utmost regret, aren’t getting considered as the law hasn’t been extended to the region,” reads the commission’s annual report, a copy of which is available with News Lens Pakistan.

According to the RTI law, the public departments are bound to provide the information sought by the applicants within 10 days. If the department fails to do so, applicants could file complaint with the RTI commission established under the law.

The commission will respond to complaints within 60 days and summon the Press Information Officer (PIO) designated in the public department to seek explanation for failure to provide information.

The RTI annual report said that the federal government needs to take steps to extend the RTI law to PATA in “the best public interest.”

Civil society representatives say the RTI law is the best option for journalists and citizens to access public record to ensure transparency and accountability of public departments. However, as things stand, requests from citizens and journalists from PATA go unanswered.

Fazal Khaliq, a Swat-based journalist working with the Dawn newspaper had filed an RTI request on 7th July, 2017, to get details of funds allocated and utilized on sports activities in Swat.

Khaliq says he hasn’t been provided the information due to absence of RTI law in Swat. “The law needs to be extended to Swat or at least the journalists’ request for information should be entertained.”

Khaliq said journalists often chanced upon leads to official corruption or embezzlement of funds in public departments but stories needed official data or documents to verify the information which could only be had through sunshine laws.

Zahid Hussain, a transparency and inclusion specialist at Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability that works on laws related to information, said provision of information to citizens of the country was a basic human right. “The PATA and FATA people should be treated as equal citizens of the country and such laws need to be extended to these regions.”

He said the RTI law wasn’t just a platform for getting information from public departments but a tool for building trust between citizens and public offices. “Through such laws, citizens extend cooperation to the public offices for improvement of governance.”

Speaking to News Lens Pakistan, KP RTI spokesperson Hasan Ali said that the commission had received several requests from Malakand division but since the law wasn’t extended to the region, they weren’t keeping any record of such requests.

“We don’t have region wise details for RTI requests,” Ali said, adding that requests and complaints from PATA and FATA weren’t considered.

A senior official at the RTI commission not authorized to speak to media said on condition of anonymity that they had requested the KP home departments and the governor as far back as November 2014 to extend the law to PATA.

The official said there had been no response from the federal government about extension of the law to both PATA and FATA. “These regions (FATA and PATA) have become black holes. When it comes to transparency in public offices and maladministration, they could be stopped if the RTI law is extended there.”

When asked if there were means to get the information in absence of the law, RTI’s Ali said information about public offices in the Malakand division could be accessed  if citizens filed requests to provincial department affiliated with offices in districts in Malakand division.

“Since the provincial departments are mainly situated in Peshawar where the RTI law exists, the departments are bound to provide information about public offices in the Malakand division,” said Ali.

Data obtained from RTI commission shows that over 9985 requests have been filed by citizens since December, 2013. More than 6499 of these cases have been resolved while more than 3391- more than a half – have been converted to complaints.

Of the total complaints, the data shows more than 2768 cases have been resolved while the rest are pending with the commission. The 2016 annual report of the commission says that of the 1771 requests for information received between April – June 2017, over 1409 have been resolved and information provided.

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