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Exclusive: Zahid Abdullah writes on Investigative Reporting in Pakistan

    2014: A Year of RTI for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan

Zahid Abdullah

With the enactment of robust and progressive right to information laws in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab in the shape of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 followed by the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013, journalists have started showing keen interest in using RTI legislation for investigative reporting. In fact, some of the stories filed by journalists would perhaps not have been possible otherwise.  

Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives has consistently maintained that RTI can be a very potent and powerful tool for investigative reporting. Journalist would argue that they have to meet deadlines while retrieving information by submitting information is a time consuming process. Furthermore, some journalists would maintain that they are able to get access to information through their sources. Our position has been that filing information requests for investigative stories and meeting deadlines are not mutually exclusive. We have always argued that while there is no denying the fact that journalists have to constantly meet deadlines but at the same time filing an information request does not take much time. If a journalist continues filing information request, in the fullness of time he starts gathering enough data to work with to file investigative reports. Furthermore, there is certain type of information which cannot be gathered by a journalist no matter how well connected the journalist might be but RTI helps gather such information. As a result of this engagement with journalists coupled with the fact that the process of filing information requests under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab right to information laws is both cost-effective and easy, some truly remarkable stories have been filed by journalists in Pakistan using these laws. It would not be wrong to conclude that 2014 has been an RTI for investigative reporting year in Pakistan.

Journalists have used RTI laws in Pakistan in 2014 to report on social issues and to investigate claims of austerity by politicians. At the same time, they have also reported on the implementation status and the quality of RTI laws.

It is often alleged that health is an area of least concern for the governments in Pakistan. Politicians have generally shown interest in mega projects pertaining to infrastructure development that are more tangible at the expense of investing in long-term projects pertaining to health and education. Mr. Waseem Abbasi, ‘The News International’, through the strategic use of   RTI, established negligence of government in the health sector. He submitted information request to all Executive District Officers, Health Department of all districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab seeking certified information about the total number of Basic Health Units in the District, total number of sanctioned posts of doctors for all Basic Health Unit of the districts and total number of vacant posts of doctors and lastly, certified information about total number of sanctioned posts of doctors for each Basic Health Units and total number of vacant posts of doctors in each Basic Health Unit of the district.  He established with certified information received through information requests submitted under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 that out of 732 Basic Health Units in 10 districts of Punjab, 310 Basic Health Units were functioning without doctors.  

Based on information received through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013, he filed another story sharing that there were no doctors in 70% of Basic Health Units in just 3 disstricts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Similarly education is also not a priority area for provincial governments and it was proven through certified information received through RTI laws of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Umar Cheema contributed an excellent investigative story headlined News Link: Education not top priority of Punjab, KP govts. He revealed that approximately 42,000 positions of teachers were lying vacant in the Punjab and 4,550 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Despite the appointment of Information Commissioners in April, 2014, Punjab government continued dragging its feet on the issue of releasing funds for the establishment of Punjab Information Commission for a long time. As a result, Information Commissioners were forced to work from homes without any secretarial support. Umar Cheema came up with a brilliant idea of using RTI laws for investigating the progress on the implementation of Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013. He submitted information requests under RTI laws of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab to both commissions and Information Departments of KPK and Punjab asking about 17 questions pertaining to the establishment, funds and working of information commission. Punjab bureaucracy did not provide him complete information unlike Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information. He filed an excellent investigative story headlined: Punjab conceals facts while KP provides requested details.

Interestingly, it was also established through RTI requests filed by journalists under Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 that it is a hopelessly ineffective law. In the case of RTI filed by Umar Cheema, it emerged that it is not the law but the persons asking the access to information determines whether the official will provide the requested information or not. The Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) chose not to provide requested information to Umar Cheema but the same request was entertained when a Member of National Assembly sought access to the same information. Mr. Cheema filed a story headlined: FPSC also has double standards in giving informationIn the second case, Sohaib Jamali filed  information request to Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, asking about the list of companies registered with SECP. Instead of charging him for the fee for providing the requested information, SECP demanded him to deposit fee for the maintenance and production of the information. In his article, he shared not only how he was asked to deposit fee of Rs. 0.2 million in bank to get requested information but also highlighted the need for new robust RTI Law at Federal level. In the meanwhile, Mr.   Jamali has lodged complaint with Federal Ombudsman and is awaiting decision. Azaz Syed also found Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 useless and contributed a story based on his experience of using this law with headline   Does access to information law not apply to Presidency?.

Journalists have also started using RTI laws for keeping track of the way public funds are being utilized. Riaz Khan Daudzai filed an investigative story based on the information received through the use of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa RTI law in which he shared that The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has spent Rs21.9 million on POL charges for planes, helicopters, other protocol, ministers and advisors to the chief minister during the first six months of the current financial year. Waseem Abbasi filed an information request to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government seeking certified information about the number of flights taken by the official helicopter of the chief minister of KPK from  July 01  2013 to October 1,  2014, expenses incurred on fuel of the official helicopter of CM during the period from July 1,  2013 to October 1, 2014 and the list of passengers who travelled on CM's official helicopter during the above mentioned period along with their portfolio's and designations. Through this RTI request, he was able to confirm that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan has used a government helicopter fueled by the taxpayers money. Apart from this one, he also filed another investigative story on the use of helicopters based on information retrieved through the use of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa right to information law headlined News Link: KP govt using helicopters in violation of rules. He filed yet another investigative story headlinedKP CM spends Rs2.6m on entertainment, bakery items.

Apart from using right to information laws for certified information for their investigative stories, journalists also filed stories on the implementation status of RTI laws and on the information received by CPDI through the use of RTI laws. Some such stories were headlined as Most DCOs continue to jealously guard ‘information’, Punjab commission for review of laws against right to information, Rs2.6 million spent on moon sighting in one year, KPK govt better than Punjab in access to information, No CT scan machines in 16 districts of Punjab, seven of KPK Right to Information Act and Article 19-A — freedom of information ‘on paper, not in practice’. In this connection, an outstanding story was filed by Umar Cheema headlined Freedom of Information law being violated; NA, Presidency reject any violation; Election Commission stands out by placing information on web.

Importance of RTI for investigative reporting can hardly be exaggerated and has been beautifully summed up by Umar Cheema, one of Pakistan’s most outstanding investigative journalists in these words: “Without effective RTI law, investigative journalism is leak journalism. RTI law empowers a journalist to make his own choice of which issue to follow and collect information accordingly instead of waiting for somebody to share information of his choice.”  Will journalists in general, and in Pakistan in particular, pay heed to what their senior colleague has to say about making their own choices for investigative reporting and use RTI for investigative reporting in greater frequency in 2015?

The writer is associated with Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, (CPDI) and tweets at @XahidAbdullah



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DATED: Monday, 05 January 2015 09:58
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