Call to enforce laws on access to information
KARACHI: Effective functioning of democracy depends upon the participation in public life of a citizenry that is well-informed. Throughout the world, ‘Freedom of Information (FoI) laws are changing the characterisation of democratic governance, according to a communication released by the Shehri-CBE on Sunday.
Freedom of information legislation – the rules that guarantee access to the data held by the state – which establishes a right to know the legal process by which requests may be made for government-held information (barring standard exceptions). The information is provided free or at minimal cost, it continued.
Such laws are extremely effective in most countries helping their governments to ensure transparency in governance, the communication said.
It observed that “at the moment, Pakistan is facing one of the worst crises of its history. Floods have devastated the country but other countries, aid agencies and even ordinary citizens are not willing to contribute towards the relief funds through the government channels because of a lack of transparency and poor governance”.
It recalled that the federal government had promulgated the ‘Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002’ allowing citizens access to the public records held by federal ministries, departments, boards, councils, courts, tribunals or any other public body. Under the law, such a body must respond to a citizen’s request for information within 21 days.
Sindh also had a similar Act passed in 2006.
“However, in reality these laws in Pakistan are not effective,” it claimed.
It quoted the 18th Constitutional Amendment which inserted the following Article 19A after Article 19: “19A. Right to information:- Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restriction imposed by the law.”
It also quoted senior PPP leader Raza Rabbani as declaring that for the first time in the country’s history, access to information had been made the fundamental right of citizens.
The Shehri-CBE claimed that the ground reality in Pakistan is different, giving the following examples of its experience:
1. In August 2009, Shehri asked the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) for details of the buildings regularised under the Sindh Regulation and Control (use of plots and construction of buildings) Ordinance, 2002, Sindh Ordinance No.VIII of 2002. The information sought was: (Whether) this legislation regularised illegally built buildings in Karachi on payment of a fee.
The objective of this request was to find out the assessed value for regularisation of the various buildings and the actual payment deposited in the government coffers.
There was no response from the KBCA. As per the rules, Shehri waited for a reply and then lodged a complaint with the provincial ombudsman secretariat. (Ombudsman file No.POS/362/2010/DG-I). Since then, KBCA has sent a number of confusing replies but has not given the requested information even after a period of one year.
2. As a test case, Shehri asked one of its members to send an FoI request to the KBCA in August 2009 to see how an ordinary citizen fared with this law. As usual, there was no response from the KBCA and a complaint was sent to the ombudsman’s secretariat. (Ombudsman file No.POS/363/2010/DG-I). However, in this case, there has been no response from KBCA so far in spite of a number of reminders sent to it by the ombudsman secretariat.
“This just shows the level of contempt government officers have towards ordinary citizens and the FoI laws,” the Shehri communication said.
It pointed out that India has the similar law called ‘RTI (right to information) laws’.
According to it, the RTI laws are effective and there are two major reasons:
a. There is a dedicated supervisory body for the implementation of these laws and redressing of complaints.
b. In India, if a government official delays a response to a request for information, he can be fined up to Rs25,000 and the matter is goes in his personal file/record. The fine is also deducted from his salary.
“In Pakistan, when the requested information is benign government departments sometimes do reply. However, when the information is sensitive or there is corruption involved, bureaucrats can delay and obfuscate for years. This defeats the very purpose of the FoI laws,” the Shehri communication claimed, adding: “Unless there is a total overhaul of the freedom of information laws, this legislation shall exist only on papers. It will not make a difference to the citizens of Pakistan, nor will it increase transparency or ensure good governance.”