FROM a distance, it all looks as it should. In 2002, Pakistan became the first country in South Asia to promulgate a freedom of information ordinance. Over subsequent years, all the provinces passed legislation aiming for the same thing, and citizens’ ability to access information from public bodies was recognised as a fundamental right through the insertion of Article 19A in the Constitution by the 18th Amendment. But like much else in this country, a closer look betrays chaos lurking under the surface. As pointed out by experts and activists during a discussion organised by the Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan in Islamabad late last month, the matter is caught between “the political enthusiasm to enact laws and the political will to implement them”. This is evident not only in the patchy quality of the various sets of laws, but also from the accounts of a number of citizens who have tried to access information from the government, but found themselves being completely stonewalled. The 2002 law was criticised on several counts, including being ineffectual and having a needlessly long list of exemptions. Even so, Sindh and Balochistan went on to replicate their federal counterparts in 2005 and 2006 respectively. KP and Punjab have done better, with the former putting in place the internationally accepted Right to Information Act, 2013, and the latter promulgating the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013. At the federal level, although the draft of an improved version of the right to information law has been circulating for years, and was even made public last year, it has not yet gone through.
What makes the situation even more dismal, though, is that even in Punjab and KP where the relevant laws are of an acceptable standard, they do not necessarily result in the disclosure of the requested information. The bureaucracies cling to secrecy on all counts, withholding information even from those whom they represent. Politicians, on their part, are quick to see the political capital to be made in preparing legislation, but prefer a fog to descend thereafter. All quarters need reminding that without effective right to information laws, Pakistan can claim to have neither press freedom nor freedom of expression generally; from this one point flow the channels leading to good governance. The denial of information is merely the other side of the censorship coin.
Published in Dawn October 10th, 2016