At their core, right to information laws, whether domestic, international or foreign, reflect the idea that government is meant to serve the people. It is a cornerstone of democracy as it ensures government transparency and accountability at all times. ARTICLE 19, the international organisation that promotes the right to information describes information as “the oxygen of democracy”. The ability of individuals to participate effectively in decision-making that affects them depends on information. The electorate needs to have the information with which to form an opinion.

The Constitution of Pakistan

Right to information is a fundamental right under Article 19A of the Constitution which states that “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.”

Right of Access to Information Act, 2017

In addition to the constitutional right, Parliament has enacted the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017, a federal statute which embodies article 19A and is applicable to all federal public bodies. The stated reason for the enactment of the statue is “to provide for the right to information in transparent and effective manner, subject only to reasonable restrictions imposed by law.” The preamble to the 2017 Act states that “Government believes in transparency and the right to have access to information to ensure that the people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have improved access to records held by public authorities and promote the purposes of making the Government more accountable to its people, of improving participation by the people in public affairs, of reducing corruption and efficiency in Government……”. The 2017 Act was enacted to give effect to the Fundamental Right under Article 19A as well as the right to information granted by international law.

Provincial Right to Information Laws

Similarly, Provincial Assemblies have enacted their own right to information laws. Punjab has the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013. Sindh has the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2016 and in KPK there is the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act, 2013.

To whom may an RTI be addressed?

RTI requests under the 2017 Act may only be submitted to public bodies i.e. Federal Ministries, Provincial Departments, regulatory authorities, Federal and municipal authorities established under federal law, the National Assembly and Senate, statutory or other corporation set up, established, owned, controlled or funded by the federal government, courts, tribunals, commissions and boards. It also includes any other organisations which take on a public function, as well as NGOs which directly or indirectly receive public funds, subsidies, tax exemptions, land and any other function involving public funds.
Private citizens and organisations are not bound by right to information laws.
Similarly, under the Provincial Right to Information laws, Provincial public bodies can be approached with Right to Information applications.

What information can be requested?

Any information in the form of record can be requested. Laws; policies; orders; decisions; guidelines; directives; notifications; budgets; accounts; conditions upon which members of the public can obtain licenses, permits, allotments and other benefits; relevant facts and background information relating to important policies and decisions; descriptions of decision-making processes; reports, including performance, audit, evaluation, inquiry and investigation reports; as well as camera footage of public places that have a bearing on crimes. Policies and guidelines; transactions involving acquisition and disposal of property and expenditure undertaken by a public body in the performance of its duties and functions; information regarding grants of licenses, allotments and other benefits, privileges, contracts and agreements made by a public body are declared to be part of the public record.

Exceptions to the Right to Information

Certain information is specifically excluded from the right, including information relating to defense forces, records declared as classified by the government, records relating to the privacy of an individual etc. Section 16 of the 2017 Act lists the categories of information that are exempt from disclosure.

Pakistan Information Commission

The Pakistan Information Commission was set up under the 2017 Act to, inter alia, ensure implementation of the Act and that records are made public, as per the Act. The Commission hears appeals against unanswered RTI requests or those responses that are lacking in some way. It issues notices, summons and holds hearings, passes orders, Show Cause Notices and awards penalties. It also ensures that information that is declared to be part of the public record is made publicly available.
Information Commissions exist in Punjab, Sindh and KPK to administer and implement the respective Provincial Right to Information statutes.

Right to Information Under International Law

Right to information is recognised by various international law instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the UDHR provides that “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.”


Approach until January 2022

The strategy used by PILAP until January 2022 for submitting RTI requests as a way of keeping government transparent and accountable has been ad-hoc and haphazard, at best. There was no coherence in terms of subject matter, with the only benchmark being quantity of RTIs sent. This prevented any issue from being pursued vigorously, and from research being done more thoroughly and in-depth. Not to mention the burden this created on government resources—it must be remembered that the Pakistan Information Commission is itself a public body and operates at taxpayer’s expense and it needs resources to process RTI appeals, hearings, follow ups etc. RTIs should not be submitted for the singular purpose of submitting RTIs.

Recommendations for the way forward

A more productive approach to use RTI more effectively is to focus more fully on selected public interest issues, with RTIs being a part of the overall advocacy strategy, as opposed to the sole strategy. Instead of RTIs being submitted at the discretion of a single director or member, a more objective, standardized criterion needs to be followed. One way to make the use of RTI more democratic within the organisation is to use the CA votes to home in on selected cases.

RTI to be used as a collective advocacy campaign

The recommendation is, first, to concentrate on ongoing cases, advocacy campaigns and RTIs. For example, if PILAP has filed a petition against the discharge of untreated waste into a particular river, this should be followed up with RTIs to WASA, Provincial EPAs, Provincial Environment Departments, the Ministry of Climate Change etc. All concerned public bodies in all four Provinces should be targeted. The same approach regarding RTIs can be followed for other current cases and significant RTIs. Once the Citizens’ Assembly is established and starts voting on issues, RTI can be used to further those causes. In this way RTI can be used collectively along with PILAP’s other work.

RTI to be used in its own right

Regarding issues that arise on an emergency basis, as per PILAP’s Memorandum and Rules of Association, these can also be addressed through RTI requests on their own at the recommendation of a CA Member and approved by the Board, keeping in mind the public interest objectives and the fundamental rights in Article 8 to 28 of the Constitution. Public interest means the interest of the general public, as opposed to the interest of an individual or a group of individuals. It implies a thing belonging to the people, the nation, the state or a community as a whole. In the absence of a set criteria for targeting public interest issues, a guiding principle in narrowing down on an issue of public importance would be to take the lead from PILAP’s past cases, advocacy campaigns and RTIs so as to build a niche in certain areas. This should be the criteria to be referred to when selecting public interest issues to pursue through RTI. In this way RTI can be used separately on its own.

In both instances, whether submitting RTIs as part of a collective advocacy strategy or on their own, the foremost criteria should be the public interest issues voted upon by the Citizens’ Assembly on a democratic basis. This would be in keeping with the principles set out in the Memorandum and Rules of Association.

Use of Social Media

Social media is an effective tool in seeking government accountability, given its wide reach. In any advocacy campaign, including RTIs sent as part of a collective advocacy campaign, as well as those sent separately on their own, all RTIs that are sent should be followed up on social media through posts, and invitations to members, followers and the general public to send similar RTIs. Pre-drafted RTIs can be uploaded on Facebook and other platforms, as well as the website to make it easier for people to send RTIs. Another idea is to upload pre-drafted petitions and public statements on social media platforms and the website inviting people to sign them. It is imperative that all uploads be visually pleasing, eye-catching and appealing to the general public.

PILAP can also collaborate with activists, journalists, influencers, lawyers etc. in order for them to promote PILAP’s posts and other work on their respective social media pages.

Conventional Media

Conventional media such as the press, and perhaps TV, can be utilized to promote RTIs. Either the PILAP team or journalists, lawyers, activists etc. in collaboration with PILAP can contribute articles in the press, relevant blogs and the PILAP website blog highlighting the issue at hand, possible policy solutions and PILAP’s work in the area. These, in turn, can be used as social media posts with effective graphics.

Collaboration with RTI Experts

An idea is to collaborate with citizens who have been effectively using RTI to pursue certain public interest cases.

RTI Training Sessions

In a similar vein, people such as Naeem Sadiq and even himself can be requested to hold virtual or inperson training sessions for PILAP’s associate and student members in order to impart this knowledge to them, should they also require the use of this tool.

PILAP RTI Statistics

Out of a total of 754 RTIs issued to various government bodies since PILAP’s formation in 2011, 102 (14%) have received responses, while 652 (86%) have gone unanswered. A majority of those that have received responses have done so at the instigation of the Pakistan Information Commission, following appeals submitted to it by PILAP. There is, hence, a significant gap in the issuance of RTIs and responses received from the respective government departments. They usually need to be coaxed into responding by PIC, through hearings that culminate in the issuance of orders, which is a public burden.

RTI Session Conducted by Mr. Anwar Kashif Mumtaz

PILAP organized a virtual session on the significance and use of RTI law in Pakistan. The speaker at the session was Mr. Anwar Kashif Mumtaz, a lawyer with substantial knowledge of the subject matter. After going through the law, it was pointed out that the current law is not being fully implemented in letter and spirit, as highlighted by PILAP’s own record of receiving RTI replies. It was posited that a strategy should be devised to make the law stronger and more effective. In this regard, ideas were floated to approach the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or relevant Parliamentarians.

While the implementation of the law needs to be strengthened, the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 has strict penalties, including fines imposed on the officials responsible for provision of information. It is the implementation of the law that needs to be strengthened.