The Sindh FoI Act — the toothless tiger
‘Right to information’ is the term used for the right that citizens have to access information from the government. Unfortunately, the Freedom of Information (FoI) law that exists in Sindh is next to useless since it does not provide any clear guidelines or methods to access governmental information. It needs to be completely overhauled. The Sindh government in 2006 promulgated the Freedom of Information Act of 2006, but for the common man this legislation is ineffective as there are no definite rules of procedure that can be followed to make use of it. In 2010, the Right to Information (RTI) was included as a fundamental right for the citizens of Pakistan under Article 19-A of the Constitution, but till date, Sindh still remains deprived of defined procedures to ensure proper access to the law. During a session on the weaknesses of the Sindh FoI Act, DrRazaGardezi of Shehri recently stated that the way the legislation is worded has rendered it toothless and in dire need of repeal or amendment, to bring it on a par with the progressive RTI laws made for Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).
The K-P RTI Act of 2013 contains all the features that are vital for a strong RTI law. It is a giant step ahead with a much wider scope applicable to all government departments. In contrast, the Sindh FoI Act suffers from various weaknesses and lacunas that keep it ambiguous and detrimental to the promotion of democracy and good governance, requiring a complete overhaul to deliver on its preamble of free, easy and speedy access to information for citizens.
The Sindh FoI Act has failed to serve the desired purpose due to inherent flaws. Some of these include: 1) long and delayed timelines for the process extending up to more than 60 days, which in the absence of any seriousness on the part of the authorities, at times extends to even beyond a year; 2) no proper rules and regulations have been framed; 3) there is no independent appellate authority; 4) there is an absence of any substantial punitive powers with the ombudsman (the appellate authority), rendering him or her ineffective, with the consequence that government officials do not take him or her seriously; 5) section 10 of the law calls for the appointment of public information officers in every department to deal with FoI requests. However, no government department has appointed any officer in this regard; 6) the list of allowable information is narrow and limited; 7) there is a long list of exempted records covered under sections nine, 15, 16, 17 and 18, along with a carte blanche authority given to the government to declare any record classified and 8) the law does not have overriding effect over other laws.
Terms such as “national interest” and “public interest” are the emblematic excuses used by the government for not revealing information. Of course, there is some information that cannot be disclosed for security and other reasons, but in general information on functioning of the government — decisions, plans, policies, activities, expenditures —should be made available to citizens.
Proper rules and regulations, the adoption of a proactive disclosure approach rather than a reactive one, giving the FoI precedence over secrecy-oriented laws, protection for whistleblowers, and providing definitions for terms such as public record, information and right to infringement of privacy, are the salient features that need to be incorporated in a new Sindh FoI law.