Information – a right denied
Sweden passed the world’s first freedom of information law in 1766. Pakistan enacted one in 2002 – thanks to the conditions imposed by the $350 million ADB’s ‘Access to Justice’ loan. However, like all other funded projects, our focus was more on the release of dollars and less on the release of information. Although ahead of many other countries of the region (India promulgated one in 2005 and Bangla Desh in 2008), Pakistan’s FOI Ordinance remains a largely unused and rarely responded document. The 18th constitutional amendment added more weight and value to the Ordinance by including a statement, “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”. However the only useful purpose the Ordinance and the constitutional amendment serve is to teach us the same lesson for the umpteen time – “Our problem is not shortage of laws. It is the lack and contempt for their implementation.”
“Democratic progress requires the ready availability of true and complete information. In this way people can objectively evaluate their government’s policy. To act otherwise is to give way to despotic secrecy.” These words of Pierre E. Trudeau have little relevance or value in Pakistan. The standard operating procedure is to deny all information, however harmless. If the information seeker insists, drag him into an unending bureaucratic loop. If he makes the mistake of going to the Ombudsman, ask him to appear again and again, till he runs out of steam, patience or both. This article aims to briefly discuss how the government is itself the biggest hurdle in the way of implementing FOI law and how it could be used for enhancing the democratic process in Pakistan.
On 26 June, 2008, an Islamabad based citizen submitted a request to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, for information about money paid by the Ministry from its ‘Discretionary Fund’ to journalists between October 2002 and March, 2008. In a curt response received on 18 July 2008, the Ministry refused to provide this information by stating that it came under the category of ‘classified’ information. The ministry was repeatedly explained how and why this information could not be considered ‘classified’, and a fresh request was sent in September 2008. However despite the passage of two years and many interventions by the Federal Ombudsman, the Ministry continues to withhold the information which should have in fact been provided within 21 days from the date of initial application.
In September 2009 a request from a Karachi citizen was submitted to the Federal Interior Ministry, under the FOI ordinance, asking for information relating to MNAs, MPAs and Senators who hold nationality / green card/ passport or permanent status for any other country besides holding a Pakistan nationality. After a lapse of five months and only after an intervention by the Federal Ombudsman, the Ministry sent a one line reply – “the information called for does not relate to this Ministry, and it falls under the jurisdiction of Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs”. One had no choice but to approach the law Ministry, who after sitting on the request for two months sent another one liner. “ The said information is neither available nor falls under the ambit of this Ministry and that the applicant should contact organisations such as Cabinet Division, National Assembly or Senate Secretariat”. A comical but dangerous conclusion of this exchange is that neither the Interior nor the law and Parliamentary Affairs Ministries of Pakistan have any clue if our MNAs, MPAs and Senators are in fact Pakistanis, foreigners or dual nationality holders.
The provinces are worse with regard to FOI. In September 2009 the Sindh Ministry of Education was sent a request under the Sindh FOI Act 2006 asking for the number of ghost (non-functioning) schools and the expenditure made on these schools in 2006, 2007 and 2008. After no response was received for 4 months, the Provincial Ombudsman was approached who ordered a hearing for both parties. Three such hearing were held. The applicant requesting for information turned up in all three hearings. The Education Ministry neither responded nor appeared in any of the three hearings – making it absolutely clear, what it thinks of the Ombudsman and the Freedom of Information Act.
Pakistan would do well to learn from its neighbour India. Pakistan’s FOI law is threatening in nature. Complainants may be subjected to a fine of up to Rs. 10,000, if the complaints are deemed by the Ombudsmen to be frivolous. The Indian Right to information (RTI) Act, on the other hand is supportive and even allows applicants to get travel and accommodation costs while appearing for RTI hearings. The Ombudsmen in Pakistan seem helpless, as all they seem to have done so far is to send out letters to the concerned department. In sharp contrast, the Indian Information Commissioner, in numerous cases directly fined the officials who were responsible for delay in providing information. The Indian Information Commissioners also have the powers of financial compensation for any loss or damage suffered by the complainant.
Pakistan needs to go far beyond the cumbersome procedures of citizens making futile efforts of begging for information. A new chapter of accountability and democracy could be opened, if only the Freedom of Information law was to be implemented in its true spirit. Central and Provincial Information Commissioners should be appointed exclusively to oversee effective implementation of the FOI Act. They should have powers to award fines, penalties and jail terms to officials who delay or refuse to provide information. A pro-active web-based display of information should be made mandatory for all government departments. A dedicated FOI website managed by the FOI Commission should display complete requests, responses, time taken, results and decisions on all cases initiated under the FOI Ordinance. We have an opportunity to enter a new era of Democracy and accountability. Are we willing to unlock the tightly shut doors, and make information, easily available to all citizens?