Changes to Freedom of Information law sought
ISLAMABAD, February 15 2006: A non-government organization has written to the Cabinet Division to make changes to what it called “Flawed and Restrictive Rules (2004) for the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance 2002”.
In a letter to the secretary Cabinet Division, Ejaz Rahim, the NGO, Centre for Peace and Development Initiative (CPDI), wrote: “We wish to draw your kind attention to the rules under the FOI Ordinance 2002, which were notified by the Cabinet Division in June 2004. In our opinion, various provisions in the notified rules are flawed and in violation of the spirit of the ordinance.”
Under the rules, citizens requesting information have to pay a fee of Rs50 for each request with the entitlement to receive information only up to 10 pages.
If the requested information exceeds 10 pages, the applicant has to pay an additional fee of Rs5 per page. “We request you to consider substantial downward revision of the fee and photocopying charges in order to encourage the citizens to make an easy and cost-effective use of the FOI Ordinance 2002,” the letter said.
It may be noted that high fee and photocopying charges are in violation of Article 3 of the ordinance, which explicitly provides that it will be interpreted so as to “facilitate and encourage, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost, the disclosure of information”.
The format given in the rules for information requests the citizens to describe the purpose of information request. In addition, the declaration part of the format requires requesters to declare that the “information obtained would not be used for any purpose other than specified above”.
Experience from other countries shows that government officials often abuse such unnecessary provisions to unlawfully delay or deny information to the people seeking information.
It may be noted that, like many other good laws, the Indian Right to Information Act 2005 explicitly forbids officials from asking such questions, the letter noted.
“We also suggest that, in the rules, the designated officers should be authorized to waive off fee and photocopying charges in special circumstances involving requests from; the poor; journalists; and civil society groups,” the letter underlined.
This, the letter said, would encourage the poor to use FOI Ordinance 2002 to protect their rights; whereas journalists and civil society groups would be able to take initiatives towards creation of an informative society and transparent governance without worrying about financial implications.
Furthermore, it must be provided in the rules that the fee will be refunded and no photocopying cost will be charged if the designated officer failed to provide the requested information within the time limit of 21 days. This would encourage the designated officers to efficiently respond to the information requests.
In special circumstances, the designated officials should be required to provide the requested information as soon as possible, without waiting for the 21-day limit prescribed in the FOI Ordinance 2002.