THE right of citizens to have the state and bureaucracy answer questions is of such significance and has such a wide-ranging impact that the first session of the UN General Assembly in 1946 adopted Resolution 59-1 calling for an international conference on the freedom of information.
It noted that this “is a fundamental human right and the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated”.
Decades later, Pakistan made a promising initial start when in 2002, it became the first South Asian country to promulgate an ordinance in this regard, even though the law was criticised for being too weak and having too much room for exceptions.
Since then, though, progress has been spotty. In 2010, the right to information was recognised as a fundamental constitutional right under the 18th Amendment, and a draft RTI law at the federal level was finalised by a Senate committee on information in February 2014.
But two years later, that is where matters still stand — even though this legislation has been judged as amongst the best in the world. On Thursday in Islamabad, at a talk on the subject hosted by Pildat, the executive director of Canada’s Centre for Law and Democracy, Toby Mendel, said that the RTI law drafted by Pakistan had been awarded 148 points out of 150, “but this seems scary, because nothing is so perfect”.
He urged the public to lobby for the law to be put in place, adding that the number of requests for information made by citizens in the recent past was woefully low.
There is no doubt that the law needs to be passed at the federal level. Yet it must be noted that the RTI law that is in place in the provinces has not been having the impact that would have been hoped for.
Even where the legal framework is considered adequate, such as in Punjab and KP, citizens and rights groups report being stonewalled by the bureaucracy when it comes to the actual release of information. This is hardly surprising; yet ways must be devised to change hidebound attitudes.
The first, and most crucial step, is for government functionaries and departments to internalise that governance is meaningless if it is not inclusive, and that the administration functions on behalf of the citizenry. Most other freedoms flow from effective RTI laws; Pakistan must accelerate progress on this front.
Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2016