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The long walk to freedom

July 21, 2012

For a Pakistani citizen, the right to information got a huge boost — at least on paper — when, a little over a decade ago, the government of Pervez Musharraf introduced the Freedom of Information Act. The same was built upon and in 2010; the present government came up with a newer and improved version of the law. However, in a country like Pakistan where such liberties were unheard of, the transition to a society that encourages sharing of information has been difficult to say the least.

The Freedom of Information legislation comprises of laws that guarantee access to data in possession of the state. The term ‘right to know’ comes into play and according to this law, all information held by public bodies is essentially owned by the public. Government organisations are duty bound to provide information, that that does not fall in the category of exception and disclosure, within 21 days.

Article 19A of the constitution says, “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matter of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.”

Apart from this, there also exist Freedom of Information Rules 2004, Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006 and the Baluchistan Freedom of Information Act 2005. Even the Local Government Ordinance 2001 stipulates that the right to information about any office can be exercised by any citizen. Information that can be asked for includes how and where the public money is spent, why are residential areas being converted into commercial areas, what is the crime rate for each police station, cases pending in courts, cases of violence against women and why culprits are not being punished.

However, the red-line that cannot be crossed includes information that may cause grave and significant damage to the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations, may lead to the invasion of privacy of an ‘identifiable individual’, minutes of a meeting, records declared as classified by the federal government and any other information that the government may in public interest exclude from the purview of this ordinance.

The way to go about accessing this information is that the applicant files the application form along with the declaration and attaches a copy of his/her CNIC. After depositing a challan of Rs50 with any branch of the National or the State Bank, the applicant can submit the application to the designated official of the concerned public body. Thereafter, one should expect the information or an answer stating that the application is rejected, within 21 days. If the applicant considers the reason valid, then the case is closed. Else, he or she can first appeal to the head of the public body or then to the provincial ombudsman or the federal tax ombudsman. All in all, a fairly simple procedure; however, one that is not void of the obstacles that we’ve come to be accustomed too.

But the question that often comes to mind is, why would / should there be a need for seeing information? The answer is transparent governance. Since 1947, we’ve been accustomed to managing a system of government that is still rooted in its colonial past. This particular system excluded public participation in the formulation and implementation of public policy. In theory, the public servants are answerable to the people. And hence, whatever decision that needs to be taken, has to have the participation of the public. However, without having access to information, it is difficult to critically examine the conduct of public representatives.

One existing law that prevents such participation is the Official Secrets Act, 1923. Government officials tend to use this law to arbitrarily decide what is secret and what is open for public scrutiny. Article 5 of the Act makes a mere recipient of official information an offender. Had the access to information been available, many of those who were responsible for national debacles, like the fall of Dhaka, Cooperative Societies scandal, IPPs and borrowings from public sector banks, could have been held accountable.

But even now, with the FOI in place, it is not easy to get hold of the information. Numerous stories of how the department heads continue to ignore the requests, with the ombudsman powerless in trying to force them to at least respond, are known. Still, in a country where the wheels of progress turn slowly and cautiously, this is yet another step towards our long walk to freedom.