Right to know

Pakistan Press Foundation

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Ordinance 2013, promulgated by the provincial PTI government, is a complex piece of legislation which will require time to properly analyse and digest. And, as with all such laws, good intentions will not be enough and will have to be followed by effective implementation. These caveats aside, the law is a good one since it seeks to provide citizens with the right to know what their elected representatives are up to and it also answers critics who claimed that the PTI was interested only in high-flying rhetoric and not the unglamorous hard work of governance.

The law is similar to the freedom of information acts found in most democracies, where ordinary citizens have the right to demand information from their government and the expectation that it will be released within a reasonable time period. In the case of this law, within four months designated officers will have to be appointed and the public can approach them to request documents. The designated officers will then have to give a reply within ten working days. As anyone who has visited musty government offices where civil servants seem to be on permanent tea breaks and the required information can never be found amidst clutters of registers knows, turning this law into a workable reality will require changing the culture of our hidebound bureaucracy.

Even more hearteningly, the Right to Information Ordinance recognises that the government will always have the incentive to hide information which portrays it in a negative light. Thus it has introduced, for the first time in the country, protection for future whistleblowers. Now, a person with a conscience who uncovers wrongdoing within the government can invoke this law in front of a tribunal or a court to protect his job. The key to making this law work is spreading public awareness about its existence.

It is only when people in Khyber Pakthunkhwa know that they have the right to demand information from their government that they will actually begin doing so. Media and civil society organisations also have a huge rule to play as they can repeatedly file requests for information and then report on any malfeasance they discover. We should realise that gathering all these recordings and making them available online will likely take longer than the PTI is optimistically predicting but at least it has taken the first step in showing that its talk of transparency was not just an electioneering ploy.

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