FOI – an ornamental law
Like the crystal figurines, glass vases and porcelain candelabras that spend their aimless lives in the drawing rooms of the rich and pompous, the ornamental Freedom of Information law sits on the statute books of Pakistan exuding a façade of modernity, human rights and accountability. The reality however couldn’t be further from the truth. It is one of the most talked about and least implemented laws of Pakistan. It provides endless opportunities for foreign funded seminars but does not even scratch the surface of the mountain of secrecy and opaqueness that the state maintains over its deeds and misdeeds.
The right of access to information is not just a fundamental right of every citizen but also vital for sustaining a civilized and democratic society. It enables citizens to know true facts and thus objectively evaluate or monitor the performance of their government. It also provides an opportunity to every citizen to contribute towards improving governance, accountability and transparency. All one has to do is to ask the right questions.
Freedom of information (FOI) legislation comprises of laws 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. The government organizations (public bodies) are bound to provide this information within 21 days, except where the requested information falls in a category that is exempt from disclosure. Public bodies include all Federal and Provincial ministries, national and provincial assemblies, courts and tribunals, commissions and councils, and corporations or institutions established, owned or controlled by the government.
The ‘right-to-know’ was legislated through an Ordinance in 2002, and subsequently photocopied (by replacing the word ‘Federal’ with ‘Provincial’) by the Balochistan and Sindh Governments in 2005 and 2006 respectively. The KPK and Punjab provincial assemblies have found time to debate on issues like holding or not holding social events at girls’ schools, but have not felt the need to enact a Freedom of Information law.
The FOI law requires every public body to designate a senior official (not below BPS-19) to assume responsibility for providing the requested information or record. The departments are also required to display on their websites the ‘application form’ that ought to be filled for making a request for information. The fact that nine years down the road, no government department has bothered to do any of this suggests the respect the government has for its own laws.
In theory the FOI process is simple. A citizen decides what information is needed, fills the application form and sends the form to the designated FOI official of the concerned department or ministry. (A photocopy of national identity card and a receipt for deposit of Rs.50 in a National or State Bank branch must be attached with the application.) The Designated Official must provide certified and true information within 21 days, failing which the applicant can write to the Head of the department or the ministry. The Head must provide the requested information within 30 days, failing which the applicant can write to the Federal or Provincial Ombudsman to intervene. The decision of the Ombudsman is final.
If the process is so simple, how come it never works. Except for perhaps one or two instances, every attempt at seeking information has been met with stony silence, feigned naiveté or outright refusal. The reasons are many. Information is power and no one wants to part with it. Hiding of facts is immensely helpful in any corrupt system. It makes the citizens dependent on government officials, reduces the possibility of being held accountable and creates new opportunities for bribe and favours. The fact that one can approach an Ombudsman is not of much help. The Ombudsmen are either clueless or helpless or both.
One could learn from countries like Canada and India that have already developed efficient FOI systems. The Canadian FOI model is conspicuous because of its simplicity, pro-active nature and its user-friendly language. The Indian Right to Information (RTI) is gaining popularity for its accessibility and effective implementation. The Indian RTI provides for dedicated Information Commissioners at the federal and the state levels. The information commissioners have the authority to impose heavy fiscal penalties on officials who fail to provide the required information within the prescribed time.
In Pakistan, there are endless seminars and debates over the interpretation of every ‘dot’ and ‘tee’ of the law but no one questions as to why does this law not work in Pakistan. Why has the government been delinquent in implementing the existing FOI law? Why has it failed to designate an FOI official in every department and why doses it flatly refuse to provide information to citizens. What can citizens do to compel their government to follow its own laws. Appointment of information commissioners, immediate fiscal penalties for those who delay or refuse to provide the information, increasing the scope of what may be asked for and websites that display the status of each request could be some of the changes that could push the FOI laws from their state of deep slumber. In the mean time what stops us from taking the first steps. Appointing an FOI official in each department and responding to citizens’ requests for information could begin from tomorrow, and that too without a World Bank or ADB loan.
The News April 2012