Pakistan awaits modern right to information law
ISLAMABAD: Some 13 years after passing legislation guaranteeing its citizens right to information, Pakistan still awaits a comprehensive, progressive law which ensures the right is exercised effectively.
With the enactment of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance in 2002, Pakistan became the first country in South Asia to pass legislation on the right to information (RTI). The federal cabinet, however, is yet to approve a progressive RTI bill which has been drafted by the Senate Standing Committee on Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage and vetted by the Law Division and the Cabinet Division.
Experts regard the passage of modern RTI legislation at the federal level as only the first step, arguing that without the widespread use of the law by ordinary citizens and the media, the objectives of transparency and accountability in governance cannot be fully realised.
On the provincial level, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Punjab have set precedent by passing and implementing modern RTI legislation. This has stirred a silent revolution within the country, transforming the way citizens and governments interact. Corresponding laws passed in Balochistan and Sindh, however, remain outdated and their implementation has been weak.
An independent political think-tank, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) recently hosted a briefing on the state of RTI in the country.
At the briefing, the K-P RTI Commission Information Commissioner Abdul Matin Khan appreciated the role of the media in pressuring the provincial government to repeal the controversial amendment it had made to the province’s otherwise progressive law by excluding itself from the RTI Act ambit.
The media, he added, had begun reporting on RTI-related developments and using the RTI law while reporting on issues of public importance. Sharing other examples from the province, he elaborated on the use of the RTI by students seeking transparency in government-recruitment processes, by concerned citizens for improvement of medical facilities provided in prisons, and by residents of marginalised areas such as the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas for improvement in the provision of basic social services like health and education.
Furthermore, the Punjab Information Commission Information Commissioner Mukhtar Ali Ahmed linked the success of RTI to the existence of an independent body for oversight and enforcement, the Punjab Information Commission, and called on the media to advocate for the establishment of a similar commission at the federal level.
With its current outdated FoI Ordinance 2002, Pakistan is ranked 83rd among 102 countries according to Canada-based Centre for Law and Democracy’s Global RTI rating.
According to PILDAT, however, Pakistan’s new RTI bill could obtain the highest score on the same ranking – projected to be 11 points ahead of the best-rated law of Serbia at present – if Parliament passes it in its current form.