Accessing government information remains a challenge in Balochistan due to flawed implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, and despite various laws passed in the province to facilitate government information sharing.
Social activist and RTI expert Zafar Shah, who is fighting for the Right to Information Act in Balochistan, says that the 2005 Freedom of Information Act existed in Balochistan but was poorly implemented and enforced.
The regulations in Balochistan are different from those in other provinces. As per the RTI Act in most of the country, a government agency is bound to respond to an information request from a citizen within two weeks. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the federation are required to respond within 11 days. Both laws have been praised internationally. In Balochistan, an agency has 60 days to respond to a complaint.
Zafar Shah said that the situation is further aggravated by the fact that under Balochistan law, if a citizen’s application is found to be erroneous, the petitioner will be penalized, while in other provinces, the government officials are reprimanded.
The RTI Bill in Balochistan was passed on February 1, 2021 and was subsequently signed by the Governor of Balochistan. However, the law has not yet been implemented, nor have the rules of business for the implementation of the bill, the formation of a commission and the appointment of information officers in various departments who will provide information to applicants.
The Balochistan RTI Bill dictates that any citizen who wants to get information from a government department can submit a written request to the information officers of the concerned department on plain paper. The officer must provide the required information in writing to the citizen within 14 to 28 days.
According to the bill, if the officer does not ensure the provision of information within the stipulated time, the petitioner can file a written complaint to the Information Commission set up under RTI.
The commission is bound to resolve the complaint within 60 days and has the power to impose fines or both.
According to senior journalist Rizwan Saeed, previous iterations of the RTI Act in Balochistan were not comprehensive and did not fully facilitate access to information.
“Article 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the right of the people to access information in the following words: every citizen shall have the right to access information in all matters of public importance. Following the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the provinces in Pakistan were empowered to make their own RTI laws, with reasonable restrictions imposed by regulations and law,” he said
If the implementation of the bill had been monitored, people would be benefitting from it today. Considering it has been one year since the bill passed, work on the bill should be expedited.
The right to access information falls under UN Sustainable Development Goal 16, which obliges member states to achieve this metric by 2030.
Following pressure from civil society, whose members demanded the introduction of RTI law in the province, the act was finally introduced but the provincial government still does not seem willing to exchange information.
On the other hand, according to an official from the Science and Information Department speaking on the condition of anonymity, certain sensitive information cannot be disclosed to the general public.
“We publish the information on the websites to the permitted extent,” the official said. The official websites of Balochistan had not been updated for a while, but are now updated regularly.
According to Gulmina Bilal, Executive Director, Individualland Pakistan, the approval of the RTI Bill in Balochistan is a very good initiative and a good effort. The seriousness of the government is evident in the smooth presentation of the draft bill.
“It is hoped that the bill passed by the Parliamentary Committee on Information of the Assembly will be re-examined and the bill amended by other bodies including civil society to make the commission more effective. If the data is included in the RTI, including the inclusion of minorities and women, then the bill will be passed, then positive results will be seen,” Gulmina said.
Gulmina Bilal says that if the implementation of the bill had been monitored, people would be benefitting from it today. Considering it has been one year since the bill passed, work on the bill should be expedited.
She said that in the RTI draft of Balochistan the head of the commission should be a 22nd grade officer. She reported that officers have been fined in 8 to 9 cases and in 2 to 3 cases the salary has also been deducted for noncompliance with the bill.
In order to implement the RTI Act, citizens, including journalists and civil society, should send requests for access to information so that the culture can flourish, Gulmina suggested.