Understanding Right of Access to Information Act 2017

Understanding Right of Access to Information Act 2017

Withholding information is the essence of tyranny

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” ― Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Under Article 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, the people of Pakistan have a fundamental right of access to information. International law also guarantees the right of the people to have access to all information held by public bodies; of course, subject to reasonable restrictions. To ensure that the people of Pakistan have improved access to record held by public authorities, to make government accountable to its people, to improve participation of the people in public affairs, to minimize chances of corruption and inefficiency on the part of state-owned organizations, to promote sound economic growth, to promote good governance and to promote human rights, the government has recently passed the “Right of Access to Information Act 2017” (hereinafter Information Act 2017). The law will be applicable to all public bodies of the federal government including ministries, divisions, attached departments or subordinate offices including autonomous bodies, federal, municipal and local authorities, the National Assembly, the Senate of Pakistan, any court, tribunal, commission or board established under federal law, etc.

Pursuant to Section 3(1) of the Information Act 2017, no applicant will be denied access to information or record held by the public body. Accordingly, pursuant to Section 5(1), the following categories of information and record need to be published including uploading over the internet.

a) description of the public body’s organization and functions, duties, powers and any services it provides to the public, including a directory of its officers and employees, indicating their duties and functions and their respective remunerations, perks and privileges;

b) statues, statutory rules, regulations, by-laws, orders and notifications, etc. applicable to the public body disclosing the date of their respective commencement or effect;

c) substantive or procedural rules and regulations of general application evolved or adopted by the public body, including any manuals or policies used by its employees;

d) relevant facts and background information relating to important policies and decisions which have been adopted, along with a statement of the policies adopted by the public body and the criteria, standards or guidelines upon which discretionary powers are exercised by it;

e) the conditions upon which members of the public can acquire any license, permit, consent, approval, grant, allotment or other benefits of whatsoever nature from any public body or upon which transactions, agreements and contracts, including contracts of employment which can be entered into with the public body, along with particulars about the recipients of any concession, permit, licence or authorization granted by the public body;

f) a description of its decision making processes as defined in the Federal Government’s Secretariat Instructions, 2004 and any instructions for the time being in force for public to provide input into or be consulted about decisions;

g) detailed budget of the public body, including proposed and actual expenditures, original or revised revenue targets, actual revenue receipts, revisions in the approved budget and the supplementary budget;

h) the methods whereby information in the possession or control of the public body may be obtained and the prescribed fee required along with the name, title and contact details of the designated officials;

i) reports including performance reports, audit reports, evaluation reports, inquiry or investigation reports and other reports that have been finalized;

j) such other matters which the principal officer of the public body deems fit to be published in the public interest; and

k) Camera footages at public places, wherever available, which have a bearing on crime provided that if the information or record pertains to a period earlier than the year 2008, the same shall be published within reasonable time.

As per section 6 of the Information Act, 2017, public record means.

a. policies and guidelines;
b. transactions involving acquisition and disposal of property and expenditure undertaken by a public body in the performance of its duties and functions;
c. information regarding grant of licences, allotments and other benefits, privileges, contracts and agreements made by a public body;
d. final order and decisions, including decisions relating to members of public; and
e. any other record which may be notified by the minister-in-charge of the Federal Government as public record for the purpose of this Act.

Nonetheless, pursuant to section 7 of the Information Act, 2017, the following record will be excluded from publication.

a. noting on the files, subject to a final decision by the public body;
b. minutes of meetings, subjects to a final decision by the public body;
c. any intermediary opinion or recommendation subject to a final decision by the public body;
d. record of the banking companies and financial institutions relating to the accounts of their customers;
e. record relating to defence forces, defence installations or connected therewith and ancillary to defence and national security excluding all commercial and welfare activities;
f. record declared as classified by the minister-in-charge of the federal government provided that the minister in-charge of the federal government will have to record reasons as to why the harm from disclosure of information outweighs public interest, and further that information pertaining to allegation of corruption and violation of human rights shall not be excluded;
g. record relating to personal privacy of any individual; and
h. record of private documents furnished to a public body either on an express or implied condition that information contained in any such documents shall not be disclosed to a third party.

Pursuant to Section 11 of the Information Act, 2017, a citizen of Pakistan may make a request to public body through designated official in writing for information or record. Public bodies will response within ten working days of receipt of the request extendable for further ten working days. Upon denial, the applicant can file an appeal within 30 days. Information commissioners in all public bodies will address such appeals.

Pursuant to Section 15 of the Information Act 2017, prescribed fee will be charged on cost of sending to the applicant and Section 16 of Information Act, 2017 prohibits disclosure of information if its disclosure is likely to cause damage to the interests of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in the conduct of international affairs, and:

a) result in the commission of an offence;
b) harm the detection, prevention, investigation or inquiry in a particular case;
c) reveal the identity of a confidential source of information;
d) facilitate an escape from legal custody; or
e) harm the security of any property or system, including a building, a vehicle, a computer system or a communication system.

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