Shehri seeks effective freedom of information law in Pakistan -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Shehri seeks effective freedom of information law in Pakistan

Karachi: At this moment Pakistan is facing one of the worst crises of its history. Floods have devastated the country — however aid agencies / foreign governments and even ordinary citizens are not willing to give money through government channels because of the lack of transparency and poor governance.

An extremely effective tool for transparency in most countries is freedom of information legislation.

Freedom of information legislation is rules that guarantee access to data held by the state. They establish a “right-to-know” legal process by which requests may be made for government-held information, to be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions.

The effective functioning of democracy depends upon the participation in public life of a citizenry that is well informed. Throughout the world, freedom of information laws is changing the characterisation of democratic governance.

Pakistan promulgated the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 on a federal level. The law allows any citizen access to public records held by a public body of the federal government including ministries, departments, boards, councils, courts and tribunals. The bodies must respond within 21 days.

Sindh also has a similar Freedom of Information Act passed in 2006.

However in reality these laws in Pakistan are not effective. “We can give two examples of our experiences”.

1. In August 2009 Shehri asked the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) the 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 asked was:

This legislation regularised illegally built buildings in Karachi on the payment of a fee. The objective of this Freedom of Information Ordinance (FOI) request was to find out the assessed value for regularisation of the various buildings and the actual payment received in the government coffers.

There was no response from KBCA. As per the rules Shehri waited for a reply and then wrote a complaint to Sindh Provincial Ombudsman Secretariat. (Ombudsman file number POS/362/2010/DG-I) 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, “We asked one of our members to send an FOI request to KBCA in August 2009 to see how an ordinary citizen fared with this law”. As usual there was no response from KBCA and a complaint was sent to the Sindh Provincial Ombudsman Secretariat. (Ombudsman file number POS/363/2010/DG-I). However in this case there has been no response from KBCA – in spite of a number of reminders sent by the Sindh Provincial Ombudsman Secretariat. Over a year has passed. This just shows the level of contempt government officers have towards ordinary citizens and the FOI laws.

India has similar RTI (Right to Information) laws. However these laws are effective. Two of the major reasons are:

a. There is a dedicated oversight body to implement these laws and to redress complaints.

b. In India if a government official delays giving information he can be fined up to Rs25,000, – and this matter goes in his record / file. This fine comes from the personal salary of the official.

In Pakistan when the information is benign government departments sometimes do reply. However when requested information is sensitive or there is corruption involved bureaucrats can delay and obfuscate for years on end. This defeats the very purpose of the FOI law.

Interesting enough according to the 18th Amendment Bill, after Article 19, the following new article shall be inserted, namely: “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.”

Raza Rabbani has stated that for the first time in the country’s history access to information had been made the fundamental right of citizens.

However in Pakistan the reality on the ground is different and unless there is a total overhaul of the Freedom of Information Laws, this legislation shall exist on paper but will not make a difference to the citizens of Pakistan nor will it increase transparency/good governance.
Source: The News