Islamabad: The provincial Punjab Information Commission, the official appellate body for non-compliance of Right to Information requests to government departments, received nearly 4,000 complaints, a high number than expectations, since it was established three years ago, deciding 70 percent of those in favour of complainants, officials told News Lens Pakistan.

“By early this year we received 4,000 complaints of non-compliance from public. Nearly 70 per cent have been decided in the favour of applicants,” the Commission’s information chief Mukhtar Ahmad Ali told News Lens Pakistan.

Initially non-compliance with the public’s right to know under Right to Information laws was as high as 90 per cent, particularly by the health, education and development departments, Ahmad said.

To make government more transparent and accountable, and to acknowledge the public’s right to know, the provincial government introduced the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act in 2013.

Under those laws, the public can obtain information and seek records of any type from government departments, other than those classified as protected for national security.

The appellate Punjab information Commission (PIC) was also formed to handle complaints against denial of information by government departments.

The PIC’s annual 2014-2015 report states that it received 1,200 complaints of non-compliance in its first year of functioning. Complaints rose to 1,330 the following year.

“The major reasons for non-compliance are lack of awareness about the law, and a culture of secrecy in government departments. Other typical reasons are lack of training and staff too,” Ahmad said.  Many times, he said, the departments denied very small and general information i.e., budget details of some projects.

“I filed so many application with Punjab various departments in the past three years,” Waseem Abbasi, a journalist told News Lens Pakistan, adding, “Most of the time information was only given after I complained to the information commission.”

Recalling one specific and interesting example, Abbasi, who has done nearly two dozen stories based on RTI, further said, last year he sought Governor’s House of Punjab province for the details of gifts, which governor has given in one year in his official capacity, but there was no response. “Later, I complained to the PIC and the Governor’s House official said the information could not be given owing to “security reasons”. The PIC held a hearing summoning official concerned and after more than a year they finally released the details in response to my request,” he recalls.

“There is a traditional mindset of bureaucracy of hiding information from public. Even, in some complaints, simple budget information is not shared with the applicants,” Abbasi observed.

PIC officials believe that amid this culture of secrecy, obtaining more and more information and acknowledging the right to know is a continuous process, Ahmad believed.

There is gradual improvement with more and more application of the law by citizens and media persons, PIC information commissioner viewed. With the passage of time, journalists are using this law, the official said.

Most of the applications seeking public records are filed in provincial capital and very few from other smaller districts, News Lens Pakistan came to know from the PIC officials.

“Actually, there is need of awareness among officials and among the public to improve the system and make it beneficial,” Tariq Javed, a Public Information Officer for Education department in Gujranwala region, told News Lens Pakistan. He said he had not received a single application under RTI law from the public or media in his eight months in the office.

Umar Cheema, a senior journalist who has advocated for right to know laws, said the process was still in its infancy. “Bureaucracy tends to be secretive in nature. To disclose information, it will take time. Most of all it depends upon the use of law. The more people use the law, the further bureaucracy will be inclined to share the information,” Cheema, who frequently files right-to-information requests, told News Lens Pakistan.

The non-serious attitude of public bodies has been noted by the Commission as a major challenge for its work, in earlier annual reports. Cheema said that he wants the PIC to publicise complaints and reasons of the non-compliance on its website to increase awareness. “Mindsets take time to change. I don’t think the government is receptive to the idea of transparency but there is a law and we must use it,” Cheema said adding, “This law is facing organized resistance from bureaucracy. We can only overcome that through pro-active use and follow-up of the applications through the information commission or appellate authorities.”

Zahid Abdullah, program manager at the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, working on right to information related issues, said that the lack of public awareness may be linked to the lack of advertising budget for the Commission. “The Punjab government slashed its advertising budget from 30 million Pak Rupees in the first year after the enactment of the law to one million in subsequent years,” he told News Lens Pakistan.

A culture of secrecy reigns in Punjab public bodies and Public Information Officers (PIOs) need to be trained on the rights of the public under the new freedom of information laws, Abdullah added. However, the Punjab Information Commission is facing resource constraints as the Punjab government has not approved service rules. The organisation needs 43 staff members urgently to enable it to function properly.

Abdullah said no data was available on the number of information requests submitted under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act. “It is the duty of Punjab Information Commission to track this information. But, owing to the lack of staff, it has been unable to develop a monitoring mechanism to report on the number of information request and to report on the compliance of public bodies,” he said.

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