Fragile right to information
Right to information is a swanky topic. It is the perfect candidate for foreign-funded seminars, suitably lubricated with high-teas in five-star hotels. Pakistan has a plethora of right to information laws. Do they actually perform their function, or do they simply serve as a façade of our ‘soft image’?
There are at least five major RTI Acts and ordinances to support the citizens’ right to information in Pakistan. Unfortunately, only two of them (the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab RTI Acts) actually work, while the other three have continued to be comatose since their inception.
The Sindh, Balochistan and federal governments’ RTI Acts exist largely on paper. In most cases, a request for information under these laws would provoke surprise, silence, concealment, taking refuge behind exemptions or indulgence in blatant falsehood. While scores of earlier requests under these three laws yielded dismal results, the latest request, designed to assess the functioning of the federal right to information law, broke all previous records of concealment, as well as falsehood.
On February 15, 2016, a citizen of Pakistan requested the foreign ministry to provide some basic information regarding the issuance of Houbara Bustard hunting permits.
The applicant sought information on the number of permits/licences that were issued by the foreign ministry to any individual or organisation, Pakistani or foreign, to hunt Houbara Bustards in any territory of Pakistan, from June 1, 2012 to February 15, 2016. The applicant also requested records of the dates, names, designations and nationalities of the individuals who were issued these permits, along with the number of birds authorised (bag size) against each hunting permit.
Not given to balance or restraint, the foreign ministry had earlier proclaimed how its diplomacy was primarily ‘dependent’ on the slaughter of Houbara Bustards. The ministry now took a quantum leap forward and crossed all legal and ethical limits by providing a blatantly inaccurate answer.
In its formal reply, the foreign ministry stated, “It is informed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not issued any permit/license to any Pakistani or non-Pakistani individual or organisation for hunting of Houbara Bustard between 01 June 2012 and 15 February 2016.” It conveniently forgot that it had been issuing illegal permits for the past many years – a matter that has been extensively reported in the press and eloquently addressed in a Supreme Court judgement.
Coming from the highest echelons of the Pakistani government, this blatantly inaccurate response exposes the real face of the right to information laws in Pakistan. The bureaucrats clearly look down upon the right to information with contempt, and the state appears perfectly comfortable with denying its citizens their fundamental right to seek information.
To test the system further, the matter of incorrect information provided by the foreign ministry was referred to the federal ombudsman. A complaint was registered, and the foreign ministry was asked to explain its point of view. This time the response or the explanation of the foreign ministry was even more ludicrous and irrational. It stated that the foreign ministry had sent a timely response to the applicant. From this statement, one gathers that in the opinion of the foreign ministry, the right to information is limited to the promptness of the response and not necessarily to the correctness of its contents.
The foreign ministry also took refuge behind a pending decision of the Supreme Court, which relates to the issuance of Houbara hunting permits. The request for information by the applicant was, however, completely independent and unrelated to any other legal proceedings that the foreign ministry may have been engaged in. All that the applicant was requesting was information about the number of hunting permits issued by the foreign ministry. Denying access to this information amounted to a violation of the Freedom of Information Ordinance and Article 19A of the constitution.
The federal ombudsman also felt it appropriate to side with the foreign ministry and closed any further investigation into this issue. Why is Pakistan becoming so uniquely convoluted? Who does a citizen go to when the state prefers to provide no information or the wrong information?
Clearly, what is written in the law and in the constitution appears only to promote yet more gobbledygook, wrapped in glossy reports, discussed over high-tea seminars and, of course, funded by donor agencies.