The right to know
In a country with no formal mechanisms for obtaining correct and factual information, the reliability of any piece of information gets directly dependent on the distance and the personal relationship one enjoys with the original source. This has led us to become a society constantly hungry for knowing ‘the real story’, apprehensive of what appears on the media and perpetually suspicious of leaders and events that make these headlines.
Freedom of information is a constitutional right of all citizens. In Pakistan it is grudgingly granted by law (The Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002), and yet more reluctantly used by the citizens. The 2002 Ordinance is supported by Freedom of Information Rules 2004, as well as provincial and local government laws such as the Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006 and Section 137 of Sindh Local Government Ordinance 2001. The ordinance allows any citizen the right to request for information regarding workings, facts or data relating to any government function or functionary. Providing accurate and factual information makes the government, in a sense, directly accountable to the general public.
It would not be realistic to imagine that even an apparently simple task of asking for a specific information would be spared the usual inept and bureaucratic complications by the clerks who write the laws and procedures in Pakistan. One has to fill a ‘challan’, deposit Rs.50 in the National or State Bank, fill Annexure 1 of the FOI Rules 2004, attach an NIC photocopy, and post or deliver the documents at the address of the department that is responsible for keeping the required record or information. The concerned department must give a certified copy of the record or the required information within 21 days of the receipt of the request. Appeals of delay or denial can be made to the Wafaqi Mohtasib (Ombudsman), who has the power to issue binding orders. Officials that destroy records with the intention of preventing disclosure can be fined and imprisoned for up to two years.
How robust is the freedom of Information Ordinance and does it deliver what it promises. Following are some of the requests for information, pertaining to some of the much talked about citizens’ concerns, that have been recently taken up under the Freedom of Information Ordinance.
So far the experience of the Freedom of Information Act has been arduous and unrewarding. An earlier attempt by Zahid Abdullah of Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives was not honoured by the law ministry. The applicant had sought a certified copy of the list containing the names and addresses of lawyers, along with the total amount paid to them, hired by the federation of Pakistan in the Supreme Court of Pakistan from Oct 1, 2002 to March 20, 2008. The Freedom of Information law thus sits on the books of statute, like the Rs.320 million water fountain on the shores of Karachi, looking smug and pretty , but doing no good to the ordinary citizens of Pakistan. Let the government answer the above seven questions and prove that it has a Freedom of Information law that works.
Dawn, Sept 2009