Right to information
By: SHAHID KARDAR
NEPOTISM, extortion and bribery have become a way of life, and not just with politicians. Except that in their case it tends to be exhibited more shamelessly.
While corruption exists in one form or the other in all societies, the major difference in our case is the extent of its pervasiveness and its implications for governance and the value system in general and the political culture in particular.
Corruption has become systematic. It has become institutionalised at all levels in a way that it has become an integral component of the administrative, social and political culture. Hence, the question, ‘Who says that our system lacks transparency?’ — when the rate to get something done is well known what greater transparency can one ask for!
At one end are the scandals involving political leaders and senior civil and military officials which is leading to a complete loss of faith in government. Hence the belief that nothing meaningful will ever be done to control it and that those perpetrating such crimes will never get punished.
So what should be done? How can we begin to institute systems and procedures that can deter corrupt practices? This is important because global competition is influencing policy and quality of governance and Right to Information (RTI) can improve governance and transparency by inducing systemic changes.
The legal right to information is critical to the effective functioning of democracies, and the wider distribution of information empowers citizens to challenge the abuse of power. The law in Pakistan requires the government to disclose some information on decisions taken or actions initiated.
But, since RTI, transparency and good governance mean different things to different people there is need for clarity on the objectives and the indicators that would assess the progress made on this front.
The freedom of information law ranks low on the basis of international best practices. It is not regarded as a serious initiative to promote and strengthen the public voice. There are too many exemptions (public-sector corporations and minutes of meetings, file notes are excluded from its ambit) on the plea that it would not be in the ‘public interest’ to share these and that doing so would weaken the decision-making process.
But then there are no clear guidelines for classifying documents as confidential, pertaining to national security, damaging to the economy, etc. for exclusion; thereby providing the potential for discretionary abuse.
Furthermore, hardly any effort has been made on the classification, archiving, indexation and retention period of these documents. Even the political leadership wants to operate behind a cloak of secrecy and is least pushed by the denial of this fundamental right. This situation is skillfully exploited by the military and civil bureaucracy, the long-term beneficiary of such a system of secrecy.