Media Foundation 360 holds forum on ‘Right to Information Laws’ in Islamabad

Forum Participants:
Zubair Ahmad Sheikh – Superintendent City Police Islamabad
Azaz Sayed – Reporter Geo TV with experience of investigative reporting through RTI
Zahid Abdullah – Head of the RTI Department at Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI)
Aslam Khan – Freelance Journalist/Columnist
Abdul Qayyum Siddiui – Senior Correspondent for Supreme Court
Shahkeel Anjum – President, Islamabad Press Club

Moderators: Aurangzaib Khan, Editor News Lens Pakistan and Fortnightly ‘Truth Tracker, and Mubasher Bukhari, President Media Foundation 360 and Editor News Lens Pakistan/Truth Tracker

Forum Proceedings
It was made clear to participants that the forum sought recommendations and consensus on a protocol for sharing information that could be implemented in keeping with the commitment from public officials at the forum. However, the only official who turned up – SP City Zubair Shiekh – wasn’t well-versed with RTI and wasn’t really authorized to make any commitment on behalf of his department.

Zahid Abdullah: The forum started with Zahid Abdullah speaking about the need for using RTI as a tool for investigative reporting. As head of the RTI department at the CPDI, Zahid has been helping provincial governments draft RTI laws and helping journalists file RTI applications for their stories. CPDI has been the secretariat for the Coalition for RTI (CRTI) – a coalition of 52 organizations and activists working on freedom of information.  The CRTI gives an annual award – the CRTI Champion Award – to journalists who have done investigative reporting based on RTI request for information.

Zahid spoke at length about the need for journalists to use RTI for in-depth reporting, saying it would strengthen RTI laws and push officials to open to information requests from citizens. Speaking of the Senate Committee on Information’s meeting on the draft Federal RTI Law a couple of days ago, he regretted that it was not reported widely. Only News Network International (NNI), a national wire service, reported the proceedings and that too only as an event. Zahid said that while reporters use RTI laws to access information, they also need to report regularly on proceedings related to RTI legislation because it is in the interest of media to do so – “with better laws, media will have better access to information it needs.”

Zahid said reporters often say RTI applications tend to take a long time and information does not come through in time for their deadline. By way of recommendation, he suggested that reporters should initially file an RTI request daily for about a month to create a cycle of stories and then work on them as requests mature and information comes through.

He shared with participants the phone number of RTI helpline that CPDI has set up to help journalists write and file RTI applications. He also answered questions from journalists asking if the federal and provincial laws applied to PATA (the provincially administered tribal areas in KP) and FATA (the federally administered tribal areas along the Pak-Afghan border). Zahid said they didn’t but journalists could still file RTI requests to create pressure on authorities for opening up the tribal areas to public scrutiny.

Azaz Sayed has filed frequent RTI requests, often with help from CPDI, to access public documents and information. He said RTI requests brought information that was “certified” and so media cannot deny space to stories based on certified information. As opposed to sources who may or may not be credible and sometime tend to dictate the agenda for news by sharing selective information, RTI requests places that agenda with journalists by giving them access to the information they need. He said while the RTI is subject to law, the fact that the federal ombudsman has overridden denial from officials to share information by giving access to media and citizens in the public interest make them highly effective. He suggested that journalists do stories on official refusal to share information through RTI requests because such stories would push for re-interpretation of laws in public interest by bringing them to the attention of RTI commissioners and the legal fraternity.

SP City Zubair Ahmad Shiekh said that journalists often overlook issues of public safety and law and order in their rush to put the story out first. He gave an example of a blasphemy case where sharing information with media could potentially bring great harm – even death – to a (minority) member accused of blasphemy. He said the police addressed requests for information but wouldn’t want to harm anyone. To a question from a journalist asking which information was in the public domain when it came to the police, he said that any information that could potentially undermine an ongoing investigation, or alert criminals or terrorists to police action or harm someone’s life or integrity was not for sharing. Even though he didn’t really make it a recommendation, from his comments it appeared that journalists could often overlook ethics in their rush to file a story such as the in the blasphemy case. Could education on media ethics, then, be made part of RTI training?

Zubair said he hadn’t dealt with RTI requests directly but there existed a “working protocol” whereby a Public Relations Officer (PRO) at the Inspector General Police (the top police official) dealt with informal request and sent out press releases to media regularly. To this journalists said that the information given in press releases was not complete and often needed follow up. A journalist at the forum suggested that police should maintain digital record/data of all cases for sharing with public and media.

Another journalists suggested that instead of the PRO police should have an information personas a focal person for sharing information because PROs serve to promote public departments; it is not their job to respond to requests for information.

A journalist asked of Mr Zubair if the information shared with journalists was “normative” or subjective. To this Mr Zubair said that information was always shared keeping in view rules and public interest. To this Zahid Abdullah said that as a “rule”, information is often suppressed and then shared, if at all. He said the proposed Pakistan Information Commission (RTI commission/ombudsman for the federal sunshine law) with a judge, a human rights activist and a media person as members would ensure the public interest override in case of denial of information on the basis of national interest.

Mr Zubair suggested that in case of a query, journalists should go to relevant officials instead of seeking information from policemen at a crime/terrorism site because policemen may not have the right information for media. He suggested that police officials should be trained in RTI. 

Abdul Qayyum Siddiqui suggested that in order to change the official culture of secrecy, RTI laws and requests should be made rule of business at the official level. He said that officials should RTI training at the academy level, early on in their training for holding a public position.

A journalist asked of Zahid Abdullah if a foreigner can access information through RTI. He said the RTI laws only applied to Pakistani citizens, even when Pakistan was signatory to UN conventions that treated information as a universal human right.

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