Access to information a must for accountability
ISLAMABAD, Aug 17: Panelists observed on Friday that timely access to reliable and authentic information was vital for good governance, as it ensures transparency and accountability in matters of public administration.
They were speaking at a discussion titled “Disaster Watch”, which was hosted by Rural Development Policy Institute (RDPI) and the Practical Action South Asia.
The speakers were of the view that the dismal state of governance in Pakistan was largely due to the lack of freedom of information, which impeded the capacity of the citizens to effectively monitor public institutions.
They stressed that transparent governance remained elusive if there were no laws to ensure citizens access to public information. Without adequate information citizens of the state cannot formulate informed opinions on issues of national importance.
According to them, the intent of the rulers to transact public administration as secretively as possible owes much to the colonial hangover.
It was pointed out that more than 61 countries had implemented some form of freedom of information (FOI) legislation, which formulated rules, disclosure policies and chalked out a legally enforceable mechanism to access the documents.
The government must improvise the existing FOI law and extend its application at provincial level, the discussants demanded.
Official Secret Act of 1923, promulgated by the alien rulers to isolate local subjects from the affairs of the government, has been regarded as a benchmark even after the people of this land won independence from foreign rulers, Mukhtar Ahmad Ali of Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) said.
He said the right to freedom of speech as enshrined in Article 19 of the constitution, according to the Supreme Court, included the right to receive information. However, successive governments have denied this right to the people of Pakistan on various pretexts, he added.
There have been spotted legislation on access to information since 1971, but the partial success in this regard was achieved in 2002 with the promulgation of Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002.
Mr Ali also pointed out the limited scope of the ordinance and criticised it being highly selective and flawed.
Tariq Bhatti of the RDPI spoke on the significance of free flow of information in the context of natural or man-made disasters.
Timely release of information can reduce the vulnerability of possible victims of any calamity, he stressed.
Commenting on the official mindset that attempts to hide all public information labelling it as classified, secret or confidential, he said openness brought with it accountability and it in turn checked misuse of power.
Therefore, unhindered access to information is always resented by officialdom. They fear that corruption may not thrive if people’s right to know is recognised, Mr Bhatti remarked.
Referring to the unpublished findings of seismic study that was conducted to determine scale and frequency of future earthquakes in the regions of AJK and NWFP, he said: “Deliberate closure of vital information adds to the confusion and people are left in quandary.”
There is a rampant misunderstanding in various areas of Muzaffarabad over their categorisation as being safe, hazardous and highly dangerous. The pace and quantum of private reconstruction in these areas has suffered primarily because of the denied access to information, he added.
The RDPI representative was of the view that the decision on the confidentiality of any information should not be the sole prerogative of the administration. It should have room for public input and must be debated and contested, he said.