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