Statistics show that the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2002 has not been very successful in Pakistan. Why has this been the case?
I wouldn’t say that the act has been a failure. It’s a long drawn out process and requires perseverance on behalf of the applicant. Yes, initially we were confronted with numerous difficulties in getting information through FOI, but this was because not many government departments were very well-versed with it. Even presently, it is met with resistance as government departments aren’t very familiar with it. Since the past four to five months, we’ve been getting information from various departments through FOI, though we had to request the ombudsman to intervene in all of these cases. This makes the process lengthy and tiresome, but the progress is visible. It’s an uphill task but slowly and gradually we can achieve it.
What are the main hurdles in effective implementation of FOI Act 2002?
The government was never interested in implementing this law because it is against its interest. It wants to keep the necessary information away from public scrutiny. Unfortunately, this is how our bureaucracy works. It was only due to the pressure of various international donor agencies that the government was forced to promulgate FOI law. Our government itself never wanted it, which is why they made this law weak, deficient and generally impotent.
The FOI Act needs to be strengthened and made effective with penal action against officers for defying the law rather than enforcing it. The ombudsman's office, as the appellate body, needs to be armed with power to penalise the officers for non-compliance. Presently, the ombudsman has no disciplinary powers to castigate any officer.In short the law needs to be given sharp teeth. At present, at best, it’s a toothless tiger.
What is the responsibility of a citizen towards the successful implementation of the FOI Act?
The citizens need to take a more proactive role and actively start pursuing the FOI by asking for information and pressing for it. It will be a long battle, but with determination and fortitude, success can be achieved. We need to remember that every success will bring us closer to the success of our next FOI application.In Pakistan about a 100 to 150 FOI applications have been filed since the law came into being, while in India more than 52,000 applications have been filed. The citizens there take a more proactive role in deciding how they want to be governed. Remember, ‘You may not always get what you ask for, but you never get what you don’t ask for’.
What role can the government play in implementing the FOI Act successfully?
The government needs to make the law more effective by removing various shortcomings such as keeping an independent commission as an appellate body rather than the ombudsman (which is also a part of bureaucracy), eliminating the list of exclusions, dedicating a shorter time frame for the process, establishing proper rules and regulations, and including effective and binding penal actions against the officers who do not follow the dictates of the law.
Nevertheless, this is very much wishful thinking because the government is not interested in implementing a law that would hang over its bad governance like the proverbial Damocles’ sword.
How will the country and nation benefit from the genuine enactment of FOI Act 2002?
They say that the best disinfectant is sunlight. So the more open things are, there will be less corruption. Transparency will reduce bad governance and all its related ills such as corruption, nepotism, cronyism, wastage of taxpayer’s resources etc. —M.N.K.