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Under wraps

July 21, 2012

Similar to the Employment of Children Act and Sales Tax Act, the Freedom of Information Ordinance has been rendered rather unsuccessful. Introduced in October 2002, the FOI Act failed mainly because most of the government institutions were quite reluctant to share relevant information with citizens, which happens to be every citizen’s right.

According to the FOI Ordinance, every citizen can access any official, government-held information at federal and provincial levels, enabling them to participate in evaluating and monitoring the government’s performance and escalating their accountability towards transparency of processes and procedures. The government bodies are obliged to share information requested by the applicant within 21 days. If they fail to do so, he/she can write to the head of the respective department who is bound to reply within 30 days. If an answer is still not received, the applicant can request the wafaqi mohtasib — ombudsman — to intervene to acquire the needed information.

The FOI Ordinance has been issued a constitutional decree, and any state-related information like policies and guidelines, transactions involving acquisition and disposal of property, licenses and contracts, financial budgets, final orders and decisions should be made immediately available to the citizens. However in reality, it is quite difficult to obtain data from the government departments who pay no heed to the applications looking for specific details. An example is Shehri, a Karachi-based NGO, which files applications quite often when they are looking up facts pertaining to government procedures and orders, but they are met with little or no cooperation. The question that arises here is: why is the government reluctant to disseminate information, especially when it is under the compulsion of the FOI Act?

The reasons are many: the first and foremost is the lack of awareness within the government departments about the act. Many officials disregard applications because they assume they aren’t liable to entertain any requests for information—whereas, in reality, they are very much answerable to the public according to Article 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan. This negligence isn’t just on the government employees’ part; it extends to the citizens as well who are not very well acquainted with the ordinance.

According to Farhan Anwar, member, Shehri, there have been only 100 applications filed in the past six years based on the FOI Act, which shows that people hardly make efforts to look up accurate information, which is their basic right. It is incumbent on citizens to actively participate in state affairs if they want Pakistan to be a civilised, developed and democratic country. Consequently, the government departments become apathetic in making the desired information available.

Secondly, the culture of ‘sharing information’ is not very popular in our country. We like to keep information to ourselves because we fear that others might get ahead of us, misuse the information or misconstrue the data. In his article, Right to know, published in a local daily, Naeem Sadiq, a management systems consultant, writes that information is power and no one wants to part with it. However, hiding facts encourages a corrupt system and makes the citizens dependant on government officials. It also reduces the possibility of being held accountable and creates new opportunities for bribes and favours. Thus, not replying to applications is indeed the best way to operate in a fraudulent environment, else there’s always a chance of getting caught, particularly if the citizens are equipped with too much information. Such an approach also indicates that transparency becomes difficult.

Another reason that this bill is ineffective, despite being actively discussed in seminars and conferences, is because the government departments are not organised and digitalised enough to manage information accurately. Officials are usually lethargic and believe in passing the buck instead of hunting for information and helping the applicants. It is very common for one ministry to refer applicants to other ministries stating that such information does not fall in their domain. On the other hand, there’s a general scepticism about the authenticity of the information received from government officials. There’s also no guarantee whether the information provided is updated and true.

If the applicant does not receive information within 30 days, he/she can request the wafaqi mohtasib (ombudsman) to intervene, who would ask the department to deliver the requested information. Failing to do so would require the representative to pay a fine and even possibly be imprisoned for up to two years. The ombudsman usually arranges a meeting inviting both the parties for a face-to-face discussion, but more often than not, the government official does not show up. However, when the wafaqi mohtasib secretariat was contacted, they had a different story to tell.

The mohtasib reports that the government commissions regularly arrange for information that is asked for and try their utmost to satisfy the applicants. According to an official, who requested anonymity, about 50 applications are received every month out of which approximately 25 to 30 are entertained and cases are usually resolved within three months. Fifty applications being filed monthly would mean that the public is well aware of the Freedom of Information Act and endeavours to utilise it effectively; however, ground realities and figures present a contrary picture. According to a report written by Brigadier (R) Ahmed Salim, 51 complaints were filed with the wafaqi mohtasib between 2003 and 2007 out of which only eight were lodged by the citizens while the rest were registered either by Shehri, or Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (CRCP), an Islamabad-based NGO.