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ISLAMABAD: Speakers at a media briefing on Friday likened the Right to Information law to a ‘silent revolution’ that could expose government offices and help citizens attain their rights.

The briefing was organised by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat).

Pakistan is the first country in South Asia to pass legislation guaranteeing the right to information (RTI) through the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002. However, public awareness regarding this right is not as widespread in Pakistan as it is in other South Asian nations.

RTI refers to the right of citizens to access information held by the government that documents its actions, functions, expenditure and so on. Citizens can exercise this right by filing a complaint if they are denied access to the information they seek.

The law would compel the government to ensure that their offices are properly staffed, funded, trained and equipped to facilitate citizens’ access to official information.

Participants of the briefing said that acceptance of the law would not be easy, but also commended the adoption and implementation of RTI legislation in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) for over a year.

“It is commendable that two provinces have taken the lead in adopted a progressive law. The federal government should do away with the weak and outdated Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, and introduce a law that responds to the demands of the time and is in line with international standards,” Pildat president Ahmed Bilal Mehmood said.

Discussing the RTI law, Mehmood explained that the Centre for Law of Democracy – which ranks transparency laws worldwide – would accord Pakistan a high rank for offering citizens access to government documents.

Speakers also deliberated over the advantages RTI legislation would hold for the media. Punjab Information Commissioner Mukhtar Ahmad Ali said that few journalists exercise this right.

“RTI supersedes all the other laws journalists can use to access government documents and better investigate stories,” Ali said.

Ali also explained the problems with a system made to protect secrecy.

“The government must emphasize the removal of provisions that contradict the RTI,” he said.

KP Right to Information Information Commissioner Abdul Matin Khan said no information was ‘secret’, but some information would be exempt for 15 years.

“But that too can be made public, to investigate corruption, for example,” Khan said. He explained that government offices in KP were bound to provide requested information under the RTI law, and said that it could be extended for another 10 days.

“If they fail to do so, citizens can file a complaint with the commission, which is bound to provide relief in 60 days,” he said. Khan also said that it was imperative that public offices place information on the internet.

The discussion was not only revealing, but also discussed the difficulties faced when gathering information on topics such as the privileges granted to retired generals and judges, the 2015 MI-17 crash or the exchange of gifts between heads of state.

While the Sindh provincial government is in the process of introducing RTI legislation, speakers stressed the need for an independent commission at the federal level which would help journalists and citizens acquire information, and eventually, their rights.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2015

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