KARACHI, Feb 12: Speakers at a workshop on "Freedom of information" on Thursday highlighted the need for access to information to empower the masses with regard to their civil rights and provide a link with the development of the civil society.

Terming the Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002, a good beginning despite its inherent inadequacies, they called for enacting the law with improvements and said the citizens were more concerned with access to information relating to matters falling under the jurisdiction of the province.

The workshop was organized at a hotel by the Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Centre for Civic Education in collaboration with Shehri: Citizens for a better environment.

Former Sindh governor Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim recalled that when he was the law minister, a draft of the freedom of information act was prepared but it could not be enacted. He said the law could also not be enforced when Javed Jabbar was the information minister.

He said freedom of expression was meaningless without freedom of information and it was needed for accountability, to improve the efficiency, to make democracy participatory and run an open government.

He pointed out that the ordinance had been enforced by the military government but it became a law of the land after its validation with other laws by parliament through the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

He said the definition of public records in clause 7 of the act was not adequate. He said all the documents in which the public was interested should be declared public record.

He said the exclusion of certain record through clause 8 of the ordinance made it meaningless. He said people could be denied information by terming it classified or in public interest.

No remedy had been provided by the law except that after 21 days the citizen could appeal to the ombudsman, who had no power to punish the official concerned if he came to the conclusion that the information was wrongly withheld.

Why the power of hearing an appeal was not given to a court? he asked. He said defence matters remained under blanket denial for access to the citizens. MNA Sherry Rahman called for an across the board application of the law, including upon the judiciary and military officials for declaring their assets like the legislators and civil servants.

She said five other more ordinances concerning the freedom of the press were promulgated by the military government when its mandate as virtually over. She said administrative obstacles had been created in the way of the press through the laws.

Ronald de Souza of the Shehri said access to information was a key to transparency and reduction of corruption in the government. He said inadequacies of the law needed to be addressed but it would enable the citizens to obtain information about the system for which they paid through their taxes.

MNA Fauzia Wahab said the society had become submissive and acquired the habit of accepting everything without questioning. MNA Kunwar Khalid Younus said Pakistan was the first country in Asia to have such a legislation. He referred to the civil war of East Pakistan, when facts were concealed from the national press.

Journalist Bina Sarwar said the society had become addict to secrecy as every information was declared classified. Barrister Qazi Faez Isa said it was never in the interest of the government to suppress the truth.

Provincial Information Secretary Mehtab Akbar Rashdi said the process of accountability was defective. She called for effective monitoring and streamlining of the system by simplifying its procedure.

Shaukat Omari of the Transparency International and Tariq Rangoonwala also spoke. The workshop was inaugurated by adviser to the chief minister, Salahuddin Haider.