By Syed Raza Ali Shah
Information is considered as oxygen of democracy. If citizens are unaware of the rulers’ actions, then they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of the society. In Pakistan, there exists a culture of secrecy that allows space for continued incidence of inefficiencies, mismanagements, corruption, nepotism, and embezzlement of public funds. These symptoms indicate to lack of trust between citizens and the state, as citizens’ participation in governance without an adequate flow of information is not possible. Right to Information has a unique importance in promoting civil rights. This right cuts across all other rights that any state bestows to their citizens, e.g., rule of law, freedom of speech, right to representation, right to equal opportunities and consumer rights.
The right of access to information is a key instrument for the exercise of other human rights, particularly by the most vulnerable individuals. As RTI activist Mrs. Aruna Roy said “The right to know is the right to live.”
Freedom of Information laws (FOI laws) allow access by the general public to data held by governments. The emergence of freedom of information legislation was a response to increasing dissatisfaction with the secrecy surrounding government policy development and decision making. Over 128 countries around the world have legislation on freedom of information. Sweden was the first country that adopted the Freedom of the Press Act in 1766.
The right of access to information is a key instrument for the exercise of other human rights, particularly by the most vulnerable individuals.
Pakistan was the first South Asian country to enact The Freedom of Information Ordinance (FOI) in 2002 on the condition of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 was considered a week and ineffective legislation in the provision of free flow of information to citizens and journalists. Afterwards, Balochistan and Sindh provinces adopted the same law in the shape of ‘Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005’ and the ‘Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006’. These laws also couldn’t ensure citizens’ right of access to information. Later on, Article 19-A was inserted in the constitution of the Islamic republic of Pakistan during the 18th amendments in 2010 and Article 19-A of the constitution states “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”.
Followed by this, the year 2013 was considered an important year in development on Right to Information movement in Pakistan. As two provinces Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab enacted effective Right to Information laws named as “The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act, 2013” and “The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013”. These laws are helping citizens in exercising their constitutional right of access to information held by public bodies. Sindh has also joined Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the area of effective right to information legislation by repealing “Sindh Freedom of Information Act, 2006” and enacting “The Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2016” on March 13, 2017. Recently, Balochistan province also repealed weak and ineffective “Balochistan Freedom of Information Act, 2005” with “Balochistan Right to Information Act, 2021” in February 2021.
Over 128 countries around the world have legislation on freedom of information. source: https://www.rti-rating.org/country-data/
Under these effective right to information laws public officials are duty bound to provide requested information within specified time period. While under KP in 10 working days, under Punjab in 14 working days and under Sindh RTI law in 15 working days, Federal in 10 working days and Balochistan in 15 working days are required to provide the information. These laws also ensure proactive disclosure of information on the departments’ websites. These effective laws also ensure cost effective access to information to the citizens like under these laws no fee is required to file an information request. Robust RTI Law imposes a penalty on the officer for wrongfully denying/delaying access to the requested information with an effective complaint redressal mechanism.
It is pertinent to mention here that enactment of the law is not enough for transparency and right to information. The concerned authorities should play a vital role in the implementation of the newly enacted law in Balochistan with the establishment of the Balochistan Information Commission, designation of Public Information Officers (PIOs), notifying schedule of cost and finalizing rules of business in this regard.