THE Right to Information Ordinance promulgated by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor at the behest of the provincial government has rightly been hailed as one of the most forward-thinking and progressive laws in the country’s recent legislative history. In essence, a right to information law is about giving the citizenry a tool to jolt an unresponsive administration into action. In India, for example, where the right to information laws have been used widely, many a citizen waiting for a passport to be issued has filed a request demanding to know the pace at which passports are issued and the backlog at various passport centres. Inefficient officials then quickly expedite the process of issuing passports so as to avoid embarrassment or difficult questions from superiors when the shoddiness is officially revealed. Pakistanis who had struggled to acquire passports in recent months will appreciate the value of such a pressure tactic. While passports are a federal issue in Pakistan and the KP right to information law applies only to that province, it is not difficult to see how it can be applied in a range of cases there.
What is particularly heartening about the KP law is that its authors appear to have surveyed the problems with various existing right to information laws and then worked to mitigate them. So, under the KP law, protection for whistleblowers has been included, a particularly crucial protection given that misdeeds are often well shielded from the public and the media. In addition, a high-powered information commission is to be established which will deal with cases where applicants believe their right to information requests are unnecessarily being delayed or thwarted. And buttressing the applicant’s right to information versus the state’s right to claim an exception to sharing information on, say, national security grounds, the KP law requires information officers to interpret the exceptions narrowly rather than widely.
Thoughtful and pro-citizen as the KP law is, much will depend on its implementation. The international experience with such laws is that effective implementation depends on two factors, the first being a campaign to educate the public about the new law. Pakistan has had various forms of right to information laws for over a decade now, but because little attention was paid to education and awareness, few people are aware of their existence. Two, the designated information officer in the various government departments must be trained in the relevant processes and educated about the spirit behind the law. A competent and sympathetic information officer can serve the public well and be the difference between a law that works and one that is ineffective.