The Suppression of Information
Suppression of information has always been high on the list of every government’s priorities. After all, information is an element of power and control, and the less it is shared, the better it is for its keepers. Those involved in the misuse of power, arbitrary contracts, financial irregularities, kickbacks and other corrupt practices hate to see their shady deals exposed before the questioning eyes of media or public. As luck would have it, in an indecent haste to obtain an Asian Development Bank loan, the Government of Pakistan in 1997, as evidence of its having met an important loan precondition, had to promulgate an ordinance which it was forced to call “The Freedom of Information Ordinance”. The government had no hesitation in creating this document, as in any case, it had no intention of putting it into practice. The Ordinance, not worth the paper it was printed on, was promptly promulgated and securely deposited in an unattended corner of the archives that contain such other high-sounding dysfunctional documents.
The Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 is much like our nukes – highly protected, always talked about and never to be used. The topic continues to enjoy a very high rating on the list of issues that keeps the progressive English speaking citizens of this country engaged in high sounding dialogue and foreign funded seminars. Despite almost 50 attempts by zealots to break through the protective layers of this ordinance, there has been absolutely no success at obtaining even an iota of any information, however insignificant or benign. The Government of Pakistan has thus succeeded in fooling its own citizens (besides the ADB) by promulgating a Freedom of Information Ordinance and making sure that does just the opposite. What chance does an ordinary citizen have to obtain information in a country, where even the Supreme Court finds it frustratingly difficult to do so for routine dispensation of justice.
Freedom of information is fundamental to democracy, human rights and accountability. Surely the current Freedom of Information ordinance needs certain improvements. But what is holding back its implementation is not its lacunae, but the medieval mindset of the government. It is simply a case of wilful defiance of law based on the conviction that masters are not obliged to provide such luxuries as information to their slaves. What else can one conclude when information relating to even such harmless issues as the amount of sewage and the number of public toilets in a city is denied to ordinary citizens.
Pakistan needs to take a completely different perspective on the issue of access to information. The first task should be an appreciation that information is the right of people and it needs to be provided without making them go through cumbersome bureaucratic hassles. A law should be enacted that makes it mandatory for every department and ministry to provide as much information as possible on proactive basis rather than people having to ask for it. This can be done by asking every department to place on its website all information that falls within the scope of ‘freedom of information’. This should include information relating to contracts awarded, travel expenses, status and amount spent on each project, licenses issues, appointments made, waivers granted, information relating to background, assets and tax paid by elected representatives and the expenses incurred on them. This transparent and proactive web based information should be updated on quarterly basis and easily accessible to all citizens.
It would be naive to imagine that the government would start proactively providing this information just because there is a new law that says so. It would therefore be necessary for the parliament to appoint a high powered Information Commission consisting of citizens, experts, retired judges, parliamentarians and other officials to oversee the entire freedom of information process. The Commission should have powers to investigate and refer to a court of law, those department that display inadequate, incorrect or delayed information. Not providing timely or correct information should be a punishable offence, and the law should be potent enough to dispatch an official to jail, regardless of his status. No citizen should be required to explain the reason why he needs a piece of information. The request for any information and the response of the concerned department should also be made transparent and accessible to all citizens by placing them on a central ‘freedom of information’ website. In case the response is not appropriate, a citizen should be able to make a complaint to the Information Commission. The decisions and actions of the Information Commission should also be displayed on the central website to create trust and transparency in the system.
There is a need for all recorded information ‘held’ by public authorities including files, letters, emails and photographs to be brought within the scope of Freedom of Information. The Freedom of Information Act, the request process, the website, the Information Commission and the appeal process should be widely advertised on TV and newspapers. There is much we can learn from Canada ( http://www.infocom.gc.ca/menu-e.ASP ) or even from our neighbour India (http://cic.gov.in/ ) on how to make a simple and transparent information providing system that actually works. It would be nice if our law makers were to realise that an effective freedom of information process is vital not just for the much needed good governance but also a healthy democratic process in Pakistan.
Dawn Jan 2010