ISLAMABAD: The introduction of Article 19A of the Constitution is often held up as a milestone in the march of civil liberties in Pakistan.

The law, many say, is a giant leap forward in terms of ensuring transparency and accountability in a country where such things are generally thought to be in short supply.

“Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law,” reads the law introduced in 2002 – which has also spawned the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 and the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 – as well as similar laws passed in Balochistan and Sindh.

Activists, researchers say country’s RTI laws suffer from ‘bureaucratic attitudes’ towards openness

In theory, these laws should open up the vast halls of government to private citizens and taxpayers, who will have the ability to ask questions of the government and inquire into issues such as delays in development projects, lack of transparency in appointments and projects and other issues of the public interest.

The laws envision the creation of information commissions in the provinces.

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However, many cynics’ fears were realised over the past several months, as turnaround and government response on information requests submitted under these laws has left a lot to be desired.

According to activists and researchers working on right to information issues, the most effective of the various commissions has been KP.

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The response from Punjab, while encouraging, is nothing to write home about, while the performance of the Balochistan and Sindh commissions has been described as ‘dismal’.

Lack of response

The Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (Irada) is one of the organisations that’s been working with journalists and civil society to improve citizens’ access to information.

Irada Director Research Asif Iqbal told Dawn that they had submitted a large number of information requests to all four provinces and the federal government. However, it had been quite difficult to judge the RTI-friendliness of Balochistan because very little was known about the province’s commission and how it was set up.

“The Balochistan Freedom of Information Act, 2005 is not proving helpful for access to public information or records. A large number of information requests, submitted to the District Headquarters Hospitals (DHQs) in Balochistan in the first week of August have not been answered. Not only has the stipulated timeframe of 40 days expired, but even the complaints we filed with the provincial health secretary have not seen any action,” he said.

Information requests were submitted to 29 DHQs and the Civil Hospital, Quetta on August 6 this year. Irada asked for the total number of patients that were admitted and the total number that died at each of the DHQs between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2013, he said.

“Under Section 13 of the Balochistan Freedom of Information Act, 2005, the ‘public body’ is obligated to respond to the complainant within 21 days of the receipt of the request. However, except for the DHQ in Kohlu, none of the hospitals have responded to any of the requests so far,” he said.

“Irada then submitted complaints to the secretary of the provincial health department, as stipulated in Section 18. It has been more than 40 days since the submission but no action has been taken, either by the heads of the DHQs or the secretary of the department,” he said.

The Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) is also on the forefront of activism around access to information and open governance. CPDI’s Zahid Abdullah told the Punjab act is the strictest of all, requiring departments to revert on information requests within 14 days.

“To test the response of top officials, we sent as many as 1,231 information requests between March 1, 2014 and October 30, 2014: 749 to Punjab , 409 to KP, 31 to Sindh, 2 to Balochistan and 40 to federal government departments,” he said.

“It was strange that we received a total of only 143 responses: 48 from Punjab, 91 from KP, just one from Sindh and no response from Balochistan or the federal government,” he said.

Following this first round, Mr Abdullah said that 771 complaints had been filed across the country: 462 in Punjab, 256 in KP, 24 in Sindh and 29 with federal government departments. These yielded 81 more responses: 53 from Punjab, 18 from KP, 10 from the federal government but none from Sindh.

Success stories

This is not to say that the right to information laws have not had any impact. A 28-year-old computer operator, Sabahat Ghaznavi, successfully used the law to apply for and secure a job that had been ‘de-advertised’ by the government.

In Punjab, the executive district officer from Vehari was recently fined over 60-days’ pay for delaying action on an information request. But these instances are too few and far between to have any impact on the overall numbers.

Mr Abdullah from CPDI attributes these issues to institutional attitudes towards openness.

“The bureaucracy has been resisting by making different excuses, but things are getting better with time,” he said.

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2014