Islamabad — The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the information ecosystem everywhere in the world, leading multilateral organisations to warn against the threat of the “infodemic”. In Pakistan, where citizens faced similar problems in getting accurate information on the health crisis, the access to public records through the country’s Right To Information (RTI) laws was also affected.
At the federal and provincial levels, the information commissions tasked with helping citizens in getting information from the government faced a number of challenges during the pandemic. With time and varying degrees of success, the commissions confronted and appeared to overcome difficulties such as the closures and reduction of staff at government offices, delays in correspondence, and the health risks of holding in-person appeal hearings.
By September, it seemed the worst was over. Lockdowns were lifted and regular work resumed.
But now, as the second wave of the coronavirus threatens the country, the commissions hope that lessons learned during the first outbreak will help them minimise the impact of fresh lockdowns on public access to information.
In November, the federal and provincial governments issued new instructions for staff at government departments in response to the rise in Covid-19 cases. The departments were asked to work with 50 percent of their staff on rotation; The cabinet division also discouraged the physical handling of documents and restricted the entry of visitors.
The guidelines might sound familiar to the Pakistan Information Commission, the appellate body set up to supervise the enforcement of the federal RTI law, as it practised similar precautions in March.
Digital Innovation At The Centre
According to the federal RTI law, citizens can send information requests to government departments to seek records of public importance. If citizens are denied access or unsatisfied with the information received in response to their requests, they can file an appeal with the information commission. The commission intervenes on behalf of the citizens and directs the Public Information Officers (PIOs) — officials designated at government departments to handle citizen requests — to provide the required records or explain their position. The commission can summon the PIOs for a hearing and levy fines for non-compliance.
The system works in much the same way in Islamabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Punjab, and Sindh, owing to similarities in the RTI laws. It is not a competition but some commissions have performed better than others over the years, and the Pakistan Information Commission is admired by human rights defenders for its commitment.
Zahid Abdullah, an information commissioner at the Pakistan Information Commission, said they kept receiving and processing appeals during the first wave of the coronavirus. However, the commission had suspended in-person hearings of the appeals and instead directed the government departments to submit arguments in writing. Abdullah said the commission issued its orders on the basis of these arguments.
But the commission also showed digital innovation to facilitate citizens.
In September, the commission launched an online appeals management system through which citizens can file and track their appeals, Abdullah said. The web portal can be accessed at: http://appeals.rti.gov.pk/
Virtual interventions also helped the Punjab Information Commission, which was established in 2014 under the Punjab Transparency and RTI Act.
‘Zoom’ing In On Transparency
Just like the federal commission, the Punjab Information Commission was also presented with the risk of Covid spread. But it chose to take the virtual route the rest of the world had adopted to substitute physical meetings.
Mahboob Qadir Shah, the chief information commissioner of the Punjab Information Commission, said they started conducting online hearings of appeals in March.
He said the commission did not stop receiving and processing new complaints even though limited staff was attending the office due to government-approved restrictions during the lockdown.
For cases where a department was found in extreme violation with regards to provision of public records, Shah said the commission still summoned the head of that department for an in-person hearing. Two days of the work week were allocated for these hearings, which were conducted with strict adherence to the Covid-19 SOPs, he said.
This was perhaps the ‘new normal’ that the Punjab information commission was becoming familiar with, as were the officials at the KP RTI Commission.
Outreach With A Twist
Riaz Daudzai, an information commissioner at the KP RTI Commission, said the commission tried its best to ensure the provision of information to the citizens even during the pandemic.
He said the commission coordinated with departments and public information officers on the phone instead of summoning them to the office. During the lockdown period, Daudzai said the commission developed training resources and information material to raise awareness among the PIOs about the impact of Covid-19 on access to information. These materials were distributed to the PIOs by post, he said.
From March to November, he said, the KP commission members visited different departments to inspect their record while taking precautions about Covid-19, and also conducted training and awareness-raising sessions in all divisional head offices of the province.
“We have also improved our online presence during this time and if the government announces another lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we have the facility to conduct online hearings in our head offices as well as in our divisional facilitation centres,” Daudzai said.
Other jurisdictions appeared more vulnerable to the public health emergency.
Down On Their Luck
The Sindh Information Commission, which was established in 2018 under the Sindh RTI and Transparency Act, was struggling with bureaucratic hurdles even before the pandemic. The lockdown was a further blow to its operations.
Sikandar Ali Hullio, an information commissioner at the Sindh Information Commission, said the commission’s office was established in February and after only six weeks it had to be closed due to the lockdown.
The chief information commissioner of the Sindh commission tested positive for Covid-19, which also affected the commission’s performance, he said.
“We tried to improve our online presence during this period and developed an official website for the commission, which will be launched within a few days,” Hullio said. “The commission also started receiving complaints over email during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The coronavirus impact is likely to drag on the delays in RTI law implementation in Sindh. But in Balochistan, the pandemic might altogether hold up the passage of a progressive new law for access to information.
Put Off By The Pandemic
Balochistan is the only Pakistani province that still has an early 2000s version of the RTI law. This older law has fewer protections for citizens’ access to information and a weak system to appeal against non-provision of public records, according to RTI activists.
The current provincial cabinet approved the draft of a new RTI bill for the province in August, according to regional news outlet Balochistan Voices.
The approval was also announced by the provincial government’s spokesperson Liaquat Shahwani in a tweet, Mukhtar Ahmad Ali, the Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), said. CPDI leads the Coalition on RTI, a national alliance of civil society organisations working on access to information in Pakistan.
But Ali said no further development has been made so far since the cabinet approval.
#Balochistan Cabinet approves Right to information bill 2020.
— Liaquat Shahwani (@LiaquatShahwani) August 12, 2020
He said the delay could be due to the Covid-19 pandemic or due to any other factor. But no issue can be put under the table again once it has been approved in this manner, he said.
Ali said the pandemic affected access to information because staff in the government offices, including information commissions, was reduced to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The focus of the administration was also on implementation of the coronavirus SOPs, which must have delayed the processing of citizens’ information requests, he said.
Ali appreciated the Punjab Information Commission’s online hearings during the pandemic and said he was hopeful other commissions will follow the trend set by the Punjab commission.