Why freedom of information? -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Why freedom of information?

Yahya Ahmad

What is Right to Information? Is it true that an individual can access any official information, by filing a request? What difference does it make, if a citizen exercises this right or not? These are the common question one hears, when Right to Information (RTI) is brought up during a discussion. One conclusion that can be drawn up after such discussions is; people are unaware of this tool, which grants them the opportunity to attain their rightful place, in the pyramid of power. In a democratic form of government the citizens of the country are considered the authority and their representatives and institutions are there to serve them. The nascent democracy in Pakistan is still coping with the appalling state of public bodies, where constant hurdles in democratic process have reduced their roles and prevented them from developing strong values. The burden is on the citizens of Pakistan to shore up democracy and RTI can act as means to ensuring a firm democratic system.

So far, the institutions have been engulfed in bureaucratic red tape, where the common citizen is kept ignorant of official procedures and continuously menaced over simple requests. Freedom of information comes alongside freedom of speech and freedom of expression in Article 19 of the constitution. Freedom of information is also considered a fundamental right, as per resolution adopted by UN General Assembly in 1946. The resolution states, “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right…” Sweden adopted legislation for access to information back in 1766, which later also became part of its constitution. The Commonwealth, of which Pakistan is also a member along with other 53 states, recognized the importance of access to information, more than three decades ago. The meeting of Law Ministers at Barbados in 1980 stated that, “…public participation in the democratic and governmental process was at its most meaningful when citizens had adequate access to official information…”

Developed countries opted for their citizens to have access to information, as they realized very early that this would strengthen the democratic process. Of course there were hurdles in their path, as government officials globally least enjoy disclosing information. But they overcame these hurdles for the betterment of their respective nations. Developing countries have also adopted these types of legislation, but mostly they have not been implemented in their true spirit. Most of these countries have only adopted such laws under pressure of international requirements. The true spirit of these legislations has been sidelined due to lengthy procedures, bureaucratic stubbornness and lack of awareness among citizens. In Pakistan, same situation is mostly applicable, as the country still has the colonial era Official Secrets Act 1923 in place, while low literacy and awareness level within the general public prevent a proper implementation.

Pakistan has moved forward considerably vis-à-vis freedom of information, where an ordinance promulgated in 2002 has been converted into a right and has become part of the constitution. But still there is a long and difficult path ahead, for its application in true spirit. The biggest challenge in this regard is how the public will be sensitized on this issue and who will take the initiative on RTI implementation. Media is the ideal ally in this situation. Pakistani print and electronic media has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade, also achieving considerable independence. The media can perform the task of not only creating awareness among the public on RTI, but also using as a tool to assist in professional journalism. Media is an important pillar of the society, which has the difficult job of providing unbiased and accurate information to the general public, providing them with the opportunity to form an educated opinion. The media can utilize RTI to achieve this objective.

Freedom of information can become the right hand of a journalist, during investigative reporting. Instead of making predictions or guess work and relying on unreliable sources, a reporter can easily acquire documentary evidence from the state itself. Survey or data collected by the authorities, information on projects or issues and details of official procedures and departments can be attained. The information acquired through RTI can also be used to backup claims, while the data can also be further analyzed to reveal other facts. In addition no one can deny or disclaim the information, as it is in a documented form and is provided by the official authorities. There is also no chance of acquiring biased information, as the data is part of official documents, rather word of mouth. By embracing RTI the journalists and media personnel can overcome many hurdles, in the process of unbiased and accurate reporting.

Democracy is nascent in Pakistan and its institutions require the support of the people. If someone is of the view that questioning the activities of state institutions and holding government functionaries accountable for their actions, will curtail the democratic process, then they should realize that they are wrong. One only has to take a brief look at history that democracy has only prevailed in states, where the people have been assigned the power, even to scrutinize the highest and strongest institutions of the country. Dictatorships and undemocratic practices exploit the citizens and prevent them from questioning the authority, as a result of any grievances. So promoting the right to acquire information will bring transparency into the government, which will consequently promote democracy. Imparting accurate and timely information, by the state is also part of democratic structure. The common citizens have to exercise this right, so they can also be part of improvement in governance.

Pakistan has a long task ahead of it, as RTI is a considerably new concept for its people. Both the government and the citizens will have to work together to promote this tool, for the future of this country. The prevalent situation where fingers are being pointed at the institutions, setup to serve the people and people are becoming highly critical of the failure of these public bodies from delivering, RTI will acquire the desired results. It will bring into view the accurate situation in front of the public, while deficiencies and discrepancies will also be highlighted.

Consequently they can be removed from the system, making it more efficient and citizen friendly. One can imagine a society where every public body is delivering on its goals, every citizen has awareness of their rights, the public servants are truly serving the public, there is no uncertainty and the grievances of people are resolved. This is only possible when the public will have the maximum information on how the system is being run and what initiatives are being taken in the interest of the people. This can be achieved only through exercising the right to information, which has been so far ignored or is being kept under wraps.
Source: Pakistan Observer
Date:6/23/2011