Sindhis, Baloch still have ‘no right to information’
Karachi: There is no denying the fact that both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab took the lead in adopting the Right to Information (RTI) laws, but simultaneously a lack of attention by the Sindh and Balochistan lead to weak legislation, in both 2005 and 2006, which consequently resulted in a dire need of an overhaul of the laws, said constitutional experts and academicians on Wednesday.
These thoughts were expressed by the speakers at a consultative meeting held on reforming the right to information law in Sindh. The event was organised by the Centre for Civic Education (CCEP) in collaboration with the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) under the project Strengthening Participatory Federalism and Decentralisation (SPFD).
The project aimed at working with key stakeholders in the province to facilitate the drafting and/or amending the RTI law in line with Article 19-A of the constitution.
According to Zamiza Azmat, the editor of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society’s magazine, none of the government records were digitised under Section (6) of the Sindh Freedom of Information Act, 2006. “Minutes of meetings and government records were kept out of the bounds of the act under Section (7),” she added.
Similarly, under Section (8) any information requested to be provided could be categorised as ‘classified’ or ‘sensitive’.
She further added that Section 10 carried the requirement of every government department to appoint an officer dealing with public complaints and requests; however, so far no notified officials had been appointed.
Moreover, she pointed out, the law did not provide a timeframe for the appellate authority and the provincial ombudsman to get back to an application with the relevant information.
She suggested setting up an independent information commission as well as demanded inclusion of clauses to penalise officers who failed to entertain the information requests.
Giving a brief history of the implementation of the laws, Dr Mohammad Ali Shaikh, the vice chancellor of Sindh Madressatul Islam University, in his keynote address said the Right to Information Act of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Ordinance were both categorised among the top 25 RTI laws in the world.
He said the first Freedom of Information Ordinance was promulgated in January 1997 but a month later the government changed which lead to the lapse of the ordinance.
The second attempt was made in the form of Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002 on the demand of international donors. Hence, he said, the 17th constitutional amendment was passed by the parliament. However, the rules weren’t formulated till, 2004.
Though Balochistan and Sindh took lead in enacting the RTI laws in 2005 and 2006 respectively, they were, however, based on the Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002 which was a ‘weak law’, Shaikh added.
He cited the example of the right to information movement in India, which began in the form of the Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sanghatna in Rajasthan. The movement eventually led to the passage of a comprehensive law in the year 2000 from the Rajasthan Assembly which was subsequently adopted by other states and national assemblies.
Maximum disclosure, protection for whistle blowers, precedence over secrecy oriented laws, inclusion of NGOs under the RTI umbrella, minimal cost, exceptions of exemption, facilitation of access by the state, not exempting any public body, defining public record and information and right to infringement of privacy were the eight most important salient features of the RTI laws of KPK and Punjab, he said. Continuing the dialogue in the same vein, Director CCEP Zafarullah Khan highlighted that if the information requested to be provided was for a serious case then the records had to be disclosed within 24 hours, as per the laws of both KPK and Punjab.
“The absence of clarity in the RTI laws of Sindh and Balochistan was equal to not having any laws,” he added.
He was of the view that there was an urgent need to establish an institutional hierarchy and streamline them with Article 19-A of the constitution.
He also called for establishing independent information departments headed by commissioners to provide required information to the people.
Representative of Shehri-CBE, Raza Gardezi, said a culture of demanding information from the government had to be inculcated in the people who ultimately were the beneficiaries of the RTI law.
Also citing India’s example, he said around 400,000 applications were filed last year alone.