Karachi: Although in 2011 Right to Information (RTI) was included in fundamental rights of citizens of Pakistan under Article 19-A of the Constitution, half the country is deprived of defined procedures to ensure proper access.
After the 2013 election, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab governments took the lead in adopting new RTI laws at par with international standards. On the other hand, Balochistan and Sindh passed their freedom of information acts in 2005 and 2006, respectively, but the legislation seem ineffective for a common man, as there are no definite rules of procedure.
A constitutional expert and a civil rights campaigner Zafarullah Khan said, “There are five key components of good governance: vote, right to information, education, public interest litigation and consumer rights.” The second component, he said, affected the ones following it and maintained and regulated the flow of information between citizens and government.
“For both the flow of information is very important for ensuring good governance otherwise the policies affecting the public become disconnected while the masses feel alienated.” He further said that the essence of democracy was accountability of elected representatives that was ensured by free flow of information between people and those governing their affairs.
Senator Farhatullah Babar announced that a draft of rules of procedure framed to grant freedom of information legal cover under Article 19-A of the constitution is waiting for parliament’s approval.
Politicizing the law
According to Dr Syed Raza Gardezi, head of the RTI team of Shehri (citizens) for a Better Environment in Sindh, the FOI law in the province had been deliberately made weak because the bureaucracy did not like to be questioned.
He said in most cases, laws were formed to make it easier for the governments to control and regulate various affairs, but the right to information law was made for benefiting the people. He believed that the RTI laws empowered the people to be able to question decisions made by government officials, who did not like it because they considered themselves to be the ‘rulers’ of the people.
Zafarullah Khan, head of an organization for constitutional awareness Centre for Civic Education, said the current FOI law in Sindh was based on the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, a weak law that had been criticized by all stakeholders.
“The law exists in Balochistan and Sindh but it is next to useless since it does not provide any clear guidelines or methods to access governmental information. They need to be completely overhauled,” Khan said.
Highlighting the flaws in the Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006, he said so far none of the government records had been digitized to enable access as promised in its Section 6. “The major problem with the law itself, besides not having any rules of procedures for its implementation is that, under Section 7 the minutes of meetings are excluded from the list of ‘share-able information’,” Khan added.
“Similarly, sections 15 to 17, categorizing any information as classified, or excluding it on the basis of infringing someone’s privacy or are also very vague and need to be clarified,” he said. “The next provision, Section 8, stipulates that any requested information can be declared ‘sensitive’ or ‘classified’ as deemed fit by the government.”
Moreover, he said, Section 10 of the law called for the appointment of an officer in every department to deal with the requests pertaining to the access of information. However, no government department in Sindh has appointed an officer in this regard.
Yet another major flaw pointed out by Khan is that the law does not dictate a specific time period for responding to applications requesting information that meant that the appellate authority could take from months to years to respond to a request.
Media researcher and academician, Prof Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan believed that there was no political commitment toward implementation of RTI laws because politicians themselves were unaware of it and the agenda was not included in the manifestoes of parties.
What is needed?
Gardezi said Shehri had set up a Coalition for Transparency and Access to Justice to increase awareness about RTI laws and maximize their usage. He shared that 20 NGOs from Sindh had been taken on board in this regard.
“Initially when we began, the authorities responded to our requests after a year or more,” he said. “But now we get answers in a few months, usually between four and six months.”
The vice chancellor of Sindh Madressa tul Islam University Dr Mohammad Ali Shaikh, who has been closely associated with RTI efforts in the country, outlined a few features of new RTI laws of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. He also said that the laws of Sindh and Balochistan needs to be overhauled like the former provinces to make them efficient and more compatible with international standards.
According to Shaikh, the international benchmarks part of the RTI law of KPK allowed maximum disclosure by the authorities and releasing information in a life-and death situation within 24 hours; categorically defined differences between departmental record and information; minimizing cost by making the first 20 pages free; disclosure taking precedence over secrecy-oriented laws and providing protection to whistle blowers.
However, he clarified that the RTI law in Punjab was not applicable to the office of the chief minister. Khan remarked that legal awareness, internalization and making the law operational was necessary on part of the civil society, political parties and members of the academia.
He further said the RTI laws in Balochistan and Sindh need to be streamline with Article 19-A of the constitution and should be implemented by an independent body, as in KPK and Punjab.
“If the rules of business are not enacted and the culture of making a file disappear was not discouraged, the present legislation will do nothing for the people,” he said. “There is a need to establish institutional hierarchy and implementation of RTI laws, while creating awareness about the culture of demanding information.”
“The government has this habit of using phrases such as ‘national interest and public interest’ as excuses for not revealing information,” said Dr Seemin Naghmana Tahir, a professor at Federal Urdu University of Arts Sciences and Technology.
“At any time, national interest can be implemented as interest of government in power. This is why these terms need to be narrowly defined.”