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A key to open democracy

October 04, 2018

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THE failure of the federal ministries to properly comply with the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017, by making public basic information about their organisations and functions, must be taken seriously by the government as otherwise it would constitute a denial of not only citizens’ right to know but also the fundamental requisites of transparency and good governance.

The relevant law came into force on Oct 12, 2017, and all public bodies under the federal government’s control, or aided by or registered with it were required to post a 39-point information package on their websites by April 13 this year. However, as revealed in a study by a civil society organisation — the Institute of Research, Advocacy and Development — no federal ministry has fully met the requirements of disclosure under the right to information (RTI) law; 17 ministries have yet to establish their websites and the performance of the 29 ministries that have acknowledged their obligations is quite unsatisfactory.

While concern at the government’s negligence is legitimate, one should like to hold one’s fire for some time for three reasons. The deadline for compliance with the act of 2017 expired while the N-League government was hurriedly clearing its backlog and its inability to fulfil its obligations under the RTI Act was understandable. Secondly, the few-weeks-old PTI government has yet to start addressing its governance tasks, especially where the need for transparency is concerned, and it should be allowed a reasonable period of time to realise its RTI responsibilities. Thirdly, public awareness of the new RTI law appears limited, and it is doubtful if all the public bodies covered by the law — and these include certain NGOs — have realised their duties under it.

Public awareness of the new right to information law appears to be limited.

What will be required after the grace period, allowed for the reasons given, expires can be better appreciated if we look at the institutions covered by the RTI law and the scale of information to be provided without being demanded.

The law is applicable to all public bodies that are in any way related to federal authority, including all federal ministries, attached departments, and offices; all local authorities set up under a federal law; houses of parliament, including their secretaries, committees and members; any court, tribunal, commission or board under a federal law; any other (government) organisation which undertakes a public function, to the extent of that function, and any NGO that receives any benefit from the government or is registered ‘under any law’.

The categories of information and record that each public body is required to publish and put on its website include: description of the public body’s organisation and functions and services provided to the public; directory of the staff and their wages, perks and privileges; statutes, rules and by-laws and their date of commencement and effect; rules and regulations and manuals or policies; facts and background information about past policies and decisions and the rationale for use of discretionary powers; the conditions on which citizens can receive any be benefit from the public body; decision-making processes as defined in Federal Government Secretariat Instructions 2004; a detailed budget of the public body; the method and charges for acquiring information from the body, including contact details of the officials designated to give out information; all reports by and about the body; and camera footage at public places that have a bearing on any crime.

All record from 2008 onward is to be disclosed forthwith, while pre-2008 information and record “shall be published within reasonable time”.

The RTI law of 2017 is not an ideal piece of legislation and we will scrutinise some time later its categorisation of information that the government can decline to reveal — the longest section of the act — but the information the proactive disclosure section can provide to a conscious citizen could revolutionise his/her participation in democratic governance for the good of both state and the society.

This system of proactive disclosure is the latest form of honouring the people’s right to know the source of authority in the land that used to be recognised in ancient times by proclaiming the ascension to the throne of a new monarch or the identification of the caliph in Friday/ Eid sermons in religious tradition.

Except for Balochistan, where the old Freedom of information Ordinance is still followed, all provinces (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh) have adopted new RTI laws which include a provision for proactive disclosure of information similar to the one found in the federal law. If the provincial governments, too, publish and put on their websites the categories of information and record described here, the level of transparency in management of public affairs will rise to majestic heights.

The healthy developments that should follow disclosure of information about and records of public bodies cannot be exaggerated. In a country where researchers have had difficulties in obtaining authentic texts of laws and policies, the RTI laws will put in the citizens’ hands enormous knowledge related to their problems and aspirations. That will propel them towards activism. Acquisition of essential information about the administration will whet the desire to seek more information.

The possibility of participating in governance will encourage citizens to end their alienation from politics and deepen their interest in owning democratic processes and strengthening them. At the same time, the state will be able to fulfil its constitutional obligations regarding RTI and better realise the targets under SDG 16 relating to transparency, good governance and access to information.

While it should not be difficult to put on the websites the categories of information about permanent features and tasks of public bodies, the prompt uploading of new developments will need constant vigilance as nothing irritates seekers of information more than finding websites cluttered with stale and obsolete material.

Civil society organisations can play an important role in making the RTI laws fully effective. By disclosing information about themselves they will be better qualified to monitor public bodies’ compliance with the law.

Published in Dawn, October 4th , 2018