Right to information: a guardian of democracy
“Democracy dies behind the closed doors”, said the American judge Damon Keith in a very famous “Detroit Free” case. The right to information that hereinafter will be referred to as RTI has been defined and adopted up till now by almost a hundred countries as per their norms, and legal and socio-economic mores. It has also successfully recognized in each international instrument that deals with fundamental human rights. It is considered a guardian of democracy.
In Pakistan, the RTI has been bestowed a constitutional status of a fundamental right in the 18th constitutional amendment. Under its Article 19A, it has been defined as the right of every citizen to have access to information in all matters of public importance”. All four provinces of Pakistan have adopted it. In Punjab, through the legislation of “The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2010″, it is comparatively defined better than the rest of the provinces: a right to acquire information, including the inspection of documents and works, to extract and to access on certified copies of requisite documents and materials etc. in all matters of public importance.”
Through the adoption and legislation of the “Right of Access to Information Act, 2017”, the federal government of Pakistan also adopted and defined it while reiterating its belief in transparency and its aim of improved access of information to the records controlled by public functionaries. It is also to promote the principle of accountability before a state’s citizens; to accept the principle of participatory democracy; to eradicate the menace of corruption; to improve the performance of governance; to strengthen socioeconomic growth; to boost good governance and to honor human rights.
In this legislation, the RTI is defined as the right to access to information controlled by public functionaries or agencies including information of documents or records, which may either be digital or printed in nature, in all matters of public importance.
The RTI is sine qua non for a true democracy. It controls corruption and malpractices by giving every citizen access to information in all matters of public importance
Why is the RTI a guardian of democracy? As James Madison once said, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to farce or a tragedy. The countries that have adopted it in its true letter and spirit are successful democracies. The rule of law and accountability is still a chimera for those who have snubbed it and do not adopt it. The United States of America adopted it in 1966 through the “Freedom of Information Act, 1966”. Sweden adopted it in 1949, Australia in 1987, and Canada in1983. There is a list of successful democracies that adopted it first and a list of failed democracies that have not done so far.
Pakistan has adopted the RTI officially but as a cumbersome duty that was imposed by international institutions and other pressurein2010. But it has not been adopted in its true letter and spirit. In this regard, up to 2010, a series of successive promises were made by all governments. Often the notion of security and sometimes, national security has been put forth as an impediment in its implementation. A long debate is required to see whether the RTI affects national security or not, but its delayed and superficial adoption deprives the citizens of its real usage and benefits. Corruption is consistently increasing, the impermeable culture of secrecy is gaining strength, and lack of openness and transparency is resulting in huge losses to the exchequer.
The RTI is a guardian of democracy because it ensures political accountability and true representation. For the first aspect, accountability, it is clear that each democratic state emphasizes the importance of the idea that where there is a democracy, there is the right to information. These two co-exist and none can survive without the other. The second comes as a consequence of the first one. It is accountability of the public representatives. This representation stems from the relationship of electorates with the elected ones. When the latter do not pursue their promises and slogans, the RTI makes it possible for citizens to know what their chosen ones are doing.
The RTI is also a guardian of democracy because it compels the elites and the rulers to be answerable to the people. It is obviously an idea not much liked. A simple application from those whom the elite and the bureaucracy consider to be of no consequence can place them before the law. The aspect of being answerable is democracy. It is a two-way promise: a promise by the voters that they would vote, and that by the representatives that they would abide by their promises made to the voters. The RTI guards democracy.
The RTI is also a guardian of democracy because through accountability it protects citizens from the unbridled and arbitrary powers of the rulers. It is not that the constitutional status of being Article 19A gives it the guardianship title. Rather, its unimpeachable relationship with democracy makes it worthy of its entitlement. The RTI finds its place straightforwardly in discussions of democracy and its principles, such as participation and accountability. As a guardian of democracy, it not only tackles corruption but also helps to evaluate the public response. Elections are not the only means of democracy; rather the right to know after the formulation of government is the real democracy.
The RTI is sine qua non for a true democracy. It controls corruption and malpractices by giving every citizen access to information in all matters of public importance. Being part of freedom of expression, it strengthens the fourth pillar of the state: media. The right to information comes as a savior for the downtrodden from the capricious shenanigans of the rulers and elites by compelling them to disclose all those matters that deal with the masses. It advances transparency and deprecates the secrecy. In other words, it helps democracy to flourish.