Call to get law on access to information enforced
KARACHI: Speakers at a seminar on Monday observed that the masses could not benefit from the merits of the law on access to information because it had never been effectively implemented.
The seminar on “Freedom of information: access to information; using FOI for advocacy” was organised jointly by Shehri and Helpline Trust in collaboration with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
Former federal information minister Javed Jabbar, Naeem Sadiq, Sameer Dodhy, Naila Ahmad and Hamid Maker were among the speakers.
They said that most state functionaries would not provide the requested information and sometimes they would oblige the information seeker but after a long time when it had lost its utility. In many other cases officials would provide irrelevant information instead of what had been asked for.
Mr Jabbar told the audience that the access to information was first provided legal cover through an ordinance promulgated by the caretaker government led by prime minister Meraj Khalid in January 1997. Farooq Leghari was the president at that time. However, when Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister, his government did not get the ordinance passed into a law through parliament and the ordinance ultimately lapsed after its four-month validity expired.
Later, retired Gen Pervez Musharraf`s regime started working on it during 2000 and the law was in place in 2002. Mr Jabbar said that both times it was a local initiative that led to the provision of legal cover to the right of access to information, and not some sort of `foreign dictation` that`s commonly perceived. He said that the very first initiative came when in 1993 the then chief justice of Pakistan, Justice Naseem Hassan Shah, while hearing the Nawaz Sharif government dismissal case observed that access to information was a `fundamental right`.
Mr Jabbar observed that implementation of the public procurement rules was another welcome initiative taken by the government under president Musharraf to bring transparency in the official procurement procedures.
“The current access to information law needs improvement but it is a good beginning,” he said, and suggested launch of a massive awareness campaign.
He said a lot of official information – roughly 20 million pages – were available with the official archives and could be accessed.
Mr Jabbar said that India had followed Pakistan in formulating its law on access to information but the Indian parliament introduced a better law with proper and workable implementation mechanism. He said that an Indian investigation agency had exposed corrupt practices in the award of a contract in the communication ministry and the wrongdoings had caused a loss to the government to the tune of up to Rs5 trillion. A sitting minister had to resign – something that`s rarely witnessed in Pakistan in such a case. He said Pakistan did have its investigation agencies but they rarely investigated corruption involving elements within an incumbent government.
Naeem Sadiq sharing his experience with the audience said that he had sought information from the interior ministry as to how many parliamentarians had additional nationalities. He said the information was not provided to him in the mandatory 21 days and after four months, he moved the ombudsman who responded immediately and directed the organisation concerned to provide him with the information.
Mr Sadiq said that when the ministry said it did not know, he approached the secretariats of the National Assembly, Senate, cabinet division, chief election commissioner, interior ministry, etc but could not have information. He said he then moved the ombudsman again and issued the directive to the organisations concerned though without any positive outcome. Finally, the National Assembly secretariat provided the information: “Only 259 members of the National Assembly have Pakistani nationality.” He quoted a couple of more such cases.