RIGHT TO INFORMATION
“Article 19-A has empowered the citizens of Pakistan by making access to information a justiceable right of the People rather than being largesse bestowed by the State at its whim.”………… All State functionaries have to understand that in a very real sense, they are employed in the service of the People of Pakistan and are paid for by them. The loyalty, therefore, of these State functionaries has to be to the Constitutional Order established by the People.”
These are the words that were used by Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja, of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in his additional notes to the final order in Supreme Court Case # CP 77-85 & 89, popularly known as the Memogate Case (SC 2012 PLD 292), to highlight the citizens’ right to information as affirmed by the Constitution.
But these words of the highest judiciary of the land only reverberated within the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court reflecting off the pillars of judiciary into oblivion. They failed to move the bureaucracy into action which remained deaf to the citizens’ plight in their demand for their right to access information. This is especially so in the province of Sindh.
The Sindh FOI Act, 2006, is inherently a very feeble and ineffective piece of legislation—-in reality a toothless tiger. This was the deliberate intention of the initial enactors of the law, to fulfill the requirement of an access to information law but at the same time to keep it weak so that it does not pose a threat to the bureaucracy. Among others, the main weaknesses of the law are;
• Long time-lines for provision of information. It gives 21 days for provision of answer, and then 30 days for first appeal and 60 days for second appeal.
• Limited disclosure.
• Extensive list of exceptions to disclosure.
• No penalty on non-provision of information by the government officials. Infact the requester can be fined Rs 10,000/- for asking frivolous information (Who defines frivolous?)
• The appellate body, the Ombudsman, is again a bureaucrat. It goes against the principal of natural justice to have one sit in judgment against one’s own professional kith and kin.
• Discretionary powers to label any information as classified. Even the Official Secrets Act of 1923 over-rides this legislation.
• The Ombudsman has limited powers to enforce its mandate. The Ombudsman can only recommend departmental action against the erring officer.
• No whistle blower protection clause.
Apart from these legislative weaknesses, the law also suffers from limited awareness not only among the general populace, but also the government officials. Even those government officials who were willing to follow the law are totally unaware of it.
The way forward in Sindh is to tackle this issue on two levels;
Firstly, the awareness of the present law has to be increased in the general population so that more and more citizens become aware of their right and end up using this law. The law maybe weak, but at least it is there. It may not be as effective as we would like it to be, but having a law, weak as it maybe, is better than having no law. The more citizens become aware of this law, its usage will increase, and with increased usage its deliverance will also improve.This can be achieved through a mass awareness campaign of capacity building workshops, dissemination of information through print and electronic media, and motivating the people into writing actual FOI applications.
Secondly, the citizens and the civil society has to stand up and raise their voice to demand that access to information is their inalienable right, and that it should be given to them as a right and not as a largess of the government in power. They have to ask their representatives, that if PTI and PML-N can give this right to KP and Punjab, why PPP and MQM is denying this right to Sindh. But the demand has to come from the society. The best RTI laws of the world are the ones where citizens have demanded it as their right.
To achieve the way forward, various NGOs and CSOs have been playing their limited role.Awareness and training sessions are held to educate the citizens about their right to information and how they can go about asking information from various government departments. Awareness campaign are run in the newspapers to take the message to the far reaches of the province, and citizens can then get further information through publications and internet.
To achieve the second objective, i.e., enactment of a better RTI law in Sindh, 24 NGOs have gotten together to form a coalition called “Coalition for Transparency & Access To Information” to raise a collective demand for the enactment of a better and effective RTI in Sindh. As a first step, the civil society has come together on this platform to prepare a draft RTI Bill for Sindh. This draft bill came through as a result of the collective wisdom and consultation among all the NGOs. As a next step, the coalition is using its collective strength and resources to interact with the legislators to push for the adoption of the draft. Ownership of the draft by the coalition has translated into the draft becoming representative of the civil society. The civil society has taken the lead in not only adopting the draft but defending its various provisions through consultation with the legislators.
As Victor Hugo had said, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”, and time has come for the citizens to demand their right to information. If we don’t demand it now, we will never get it.
If not now, when……
If not here, where……