‘Effective’ law on information access urged
LAHORE: Need for dispensing with the culture of official secrecy and an effective and comprehensive legislation on access to information was stressed at a ‘Policy Dialogue on Freedom of Information’ here on Sunday.
Those who participated in the dialogue arranged by Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, included Dr Rene Klaff, Regional Director, Friedrich Nauman Stiffting, South Asia, former Lahore High Court Bar Association president Justice Nasira Iqbal (retired), Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, Farrukh Sohail Gowindi and Bushra Rehman.
The participants said Pakistan was one of those countries which lacked effective and comprehensive legislation on freedom of information despite being the first in South Asia to enact Freedom of Information Ordinance in 2002. The ordinance, although given life under the 17th constitutional amendment, had never been presented in the parliament for discussion and approval. The Official Secrets Act had not been repealed either.
Pointing out flaws and weaknesses in the ordinance, they said it needed a lot of improvement. Moreover, it was applicable only to the federal departments and excluded too many records from the definition of publicly accessible records on the pretext of official secrecy, they added. It was despite the fact that freedom of information laws were considered essential to strengthen democracy, empower citizens and eradicate corruption. They said freedom of information empowered people to ask appropriate questions and hold the government accountable because it was run with their funds.
They said people had been denied complete right to information in the Ordinance in pursuance of the legacy of the British rulers and because of a lack of complete democratic control over the government. The rulers formulated laws to protect their vested interests, they said, adding their priorities were evident from the fact that wide roads in federal capital Islamabad did not have tracks for pedestrians.
They pointed out that freedom of information laws enacted in India and Bangladesh were more comprehensive and prescribed punishments for the officials withholding information or providing wrong information.
They said those desirous of retaining the non-democratic character of the state had weakened in Pakistan but the military bureaucracy still enjoyed so much power that the parliament could not discuss the country’s defence budget. There was no democracy in political parties either and leadership was inherited because personalities were more powerful than parties, they added.
They observed that every government made appointments of its favourites against key posts irrespective of the capabilities of the office-holders, quoting Shoaib Suddal of police service as an example who had been appointed the Federal Tax Ombudsman.
They said Freedom of Information Ordinance had been enacted only at the federal level and replicated only by the provincial government in Balochistan. The Punjab government, which made tall claims about transparency and accountability, had not enacted any law on freedom of information despite the fact that civil society organisations had been frequently drawing the attention of chief minister to the importance of such legislation for good governance, they pointed out.
A few months back, a committee headed by Law Minister Rana Sanaullah was constituted by the chief minister to examine the matter. However, it was not known whether the committee had made any positive and concrete recommendations.
MPA Sajida Mir said the government was not following the Pakistan People’s Party manifesto.
MPA Aisha Javed said matters were often set right when questions were asked.