Karachi: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Sindh government took almost seven years in compliance to its own landmark legislation known as 18th constitutional amendment in 2010 on access to information by amending article 19, when it was in power at federal and provincial level.

Sindh Assembly on 13th March 2017 unanimously passed “Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Bill, 2016” which became “Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2017” after the consent by Governor Sindh Mohammad Zubair Ahmed on 10th April.

The new legislation allows citizens to seek information from all public departments, courts, commissions and tribunals as well. Public bodies are bound to designate officials not below than grade of Basic Pay Scale-BPS 16 in all districts within 45 days; while Sindh Information Commission should be established within 100 days of the commencement of the law.

PPP led federal government passed article 19 (a) which gives right to information to the citizens of Pakistan and it reads as “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”.

Sindh Information Commission’s decisions cannot be challenged in any court except through a constitutional petition under article 199 of the constitution of Pakistan as per new law on Transparency and Right to Information Sindh, Pakistan.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) led KP government was the first provincial government which introduced the law on the right to information in 2013 followed by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) Punjab government in 2014; however Balochistan citizens are yet to receive such new legislation.

PMLN led federal government and its representatives though against General (Rtd) Parvez Musharraf, could not replace his introduced legislation, Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, in the backdrop of 18th amendment.

Nisar Ahmed Khuhro, senior provincial minister Sindh on the floor of the House avowed the legislation as historical and hoped that besides providing access to information to common man it will contribute towards good governance and elimination of the corruption.

In compliance to Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Pakistan introduced Article 19 in the Constitution on Freedom of speech, which says “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, or incitement to an offence.

The Law further says that official can refuse information which may affect protection of legally privileged information or of the rules relating to breach of confidence; commercial and financial interests of a public body or a third party, including information subject to party’s intellectual property rights or it cause harm to life, health or safety of any person and may affect law and order situation. Official can uphold information on revealing the identity of a confidential source or hamper investigation of a case; affect prevention or detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders.

Freedom of Expression Ordinance 2006 stands repealed after this legislation. As per the new Law, the applicant can make an appeal within 60 days in case of rejection the application. Any officer who fails to provide information without genuine reason may be fined of 10% of his basic salary; while any person misuses the received information with malafide intentions will be fined Rs. 0.1 million and two years and six months imprisonment.

Former Vice Chairman Sindh Bar Council Barrister Salahuddin Ahmed while appreciating the enactment of the law said that the section 2 (d) “Document” means any order or decision made and duly notified” can be used by government for delaying the information and the 10% basic salary fine is nothing, it should be increased.

Ahmed while talking with Truth Tracker shared details of the law and explained that the new law allows citizen of Pakistan or a legal person registered or incorporated in Pakistan to seek information through a simple application. The information can be sought from public bodies and those non-governmental organizations, which are substantially funded, by the government or a local government.

“The designated official is bound to respond within maximum 25 working days (15 days initially and 10 more days for further compliance); however the official may refuse an application for access to information where disclosure of the information, in their opinion, shall or is likely to Cause harm to the national interest; national defence or security; public order or international relations of Pakistan” he added.

Dr Syed Raza Ali Gardezi of Shehry for better environment, a non-governmental organization, which worked on the draft bill while appreciating the law said it would provide great opportunity to citizens in obtaining information from various departments. “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) RTI law forbids information from Courts but Sindh gives right to its citizens to seek information form Courts under the law” Gardezi added.

Ahmed observed that two years and six months imprisonment on the misuse of the information is out of context because when information becomes public then there is not point of fixing criminal liability on its use.

Rana Ansar Siddiqui, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)-Pakistan’s member of the Sindh provincial Assembly while talking to Truth Tracker said that enactment of the law is good indication but owing to the track record, our governments lack implementation of the laws. She emphasised on raising awareness among masses about the laws as citizens can get more benefits.

Gardezi regretted that people, in our country are reluctant to use such laws but they should use new legislation as to make it more reliable and as public interest issues. He analyzed that the old law awarded no fine for officials and the application processing took too long but this recent legislation has fixed a processing time and it its extensive use can increase transparency in the province. “The difference between Sindh Freedom of Expression Ordinance 2005 and current Law is as comparing Mehran car with Mercedes” Dr Gardezi chuckled in his telephonic response to a Truth Tracker question.

Ahmed told that Sindh Information Commission will be formed within 100 days of the commencement of the law, headed by Chief Information Commissioner, a retired government servant of grade 20 under the age of 65 years for three years with two other members known as commissioners one Lawyer of the High court meeting the requirement of being Judge and another from civil society of having not less than 15 years’ of experience.  He expressed his concern that most bureaucrats in Pakistan retire around 60 or 65 making the age limit unrealistic.

ST&RTIA 2017 gives authority to the Commission as to determine that due public interest in such disclosure outweighs the harm that shall or is likely to be caused by such disclosure; it may direct the Designated Official to provide due information.

Asad Iqbal Butt, Sindh Vice Chairman of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan lauded the enactment of the law and hoped that it will bring people more benefits and minimize the bureaucratic atmosphere of secrecy in Sindh.

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