Transparency, accountability and rule of law are the three pillars on which rests the edifice of democracy. Take any one of these out, and the entire edifice collapses.
In 2010, the framers of the Constitution inserted Article 19-A -Right to Information, to ensure transparency. It says: “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.”
For seven years, however, there was no Right to Information (RTI) law. The Defence Ministry even asked that no legislation be made “without a No Objection Certificate from it,” an advice that was ignored by the Parliament’s committee.
Finally, after detailed discussions in the Special Committee, the RTI law was finalized in 2017.
A significant feature of the RTI Act 2017 is the definition of a ‘public body’ that must, on demand, provide specified information in accordance with a laid down procedure. The parliament, the courts and defence organizations all were declared public bodies. In the case of the defence establishment, the requirements of transparency were balanced with considerations of national security in the law.
However, transparency has remained a distant goal. Even the Parliament is reluctant to act in a transparent manner. The Senate has yet to implement an order of the Pakistan Information Commission to provide information about the recruitments made by it. The Senate even considered making changes to the RTI to exempt the Parliament from it. Mercifully, however, this has not been done.
The military continues to resist transparency. Information about the perks and privileges of retired generals and the lands allotted to them is not being provided on one pretext or the other. Fortunately, neither the PIC nor the citizen who demanded this information has given up. They insist that the Defence Ministry should explain in writing how information about plots allotted to generals undermined ‘national security.’
The secretary of the Planning Commission was so frustrated that he asked that NLC be taken out of his ministry and placed under some other ministry
Early this year, activists of Women Action Forum requested information about pensions, perks, privileges and post-retirement benefits, including plots allotted in government schemes, to judges of the superior judiciary. When it was not made available, the petitioners appealed the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC).
Last month, the PIC ordered that the information fell into the category of public information and asked that it be provided to the public under the RTI Act.
The information commission’s order said that the exercise of constitutional right of citizens to seek information under the RTI law did not amount to curtailing independence of the judiciary nor did it amount to executive oversight of the judiciary.
It held that if citizens’ right of access to information in matters of public importance was denied on the grounds that it would impact judiciary’s independence and core functions, the same grounds would be relevant in the case of all public institutions.
The order even said that the information should not only be available in the form of official notifications but also placed on its website as required under the RTI Act.
The landmark order constituted an important step towards ensuring transparency and accountability and was generally welcomed. However, WAF’s activists are still waiting for the implementation of the Commission’s order.
A few days ago, in another case, the PIC similarly ordered that information about recruitments in the apex court be provided to a citizen Ahmad Mukhtar Ali, whose application was pending for the past over two years.
The PIC order called for providing information to the applicant within 20 days. It also asked that the appointment of a Public Information Officer for the superior judiciary be notified and that all relevant information be placed on its website as provided in the RTI law.
These orders of the commission enunciate an important principle that independence of courts is their independence from the executive, and not their independence from the law itself.
One hopes that these orders will soon be implemented to serve as a warning to other state bodies against refusing transparency in their workings.
Non-implementation of PIC orders has emboldened other organizations. Some have refused information not only to citizens but even to government auditors.
In the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the parliament last week, it transpired that the National Logistics Cell (NLC) had even refused to give to its parent ministry, the Planning Commission, information about audit objections and what the NLC had done about them. The NLC refused to explain its position over the audit objections, did not observe procurement rules, failed to safeguard public money and awarded contracts to single bidders without advertising it according to the rules, the meeting learnt.
The lack of transparency was matched only by its audacity. Instead of disproving the charges against it, the NLC made a mockery of itself that the audit objections were based on ‘classified and confidential information’ and not sustainable.
The secretary of the Planning Commission was so frustrated that he asked that NLC be taken out of his ministry and placed under some other ministry.
This is a stinging indictment of the military-run NLC and calls for deep introspection about the lack of transparency and the need for course correction.
As the upholder of the rule of law, one hopes that the apex court will implement the orders of the PIC. Conscientious members of the Parliament should employ instruments of motions and resolutions and the civil society should use tools of social media to strengthen the Information Commission and persuade the Parliament, courts and army to be transparent in their workings.
The writer served as chairman of the Senate Special Committee on RTI