Experts have given laws that allow citizens the Right To Information (RTI) the title ‘Sunshine Laws’ because under the glaring light of the sun nothing misses you, and under the RTI laws, the performance of those holding public offices is exposed to public scrutiny.
Yet Pakistani citizens often find too many obstacles in their path when they attempt to exercise their right to information, even though Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly states that it is a basic human right to be able to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media.
If Pakistani people begin to tap into this reservoir of power, the collective narrative could change forever, and transparency and accountability could become realities.
“RTI laws are made for the people. These are unique laws because they empower the common man; that is why those in echelons of power do not like them,” says Dr Raza Gardezi, an RTI activist, adding that those holding public offices are forced to legislate these laws but they often do not let them succeed.
“The laws are there on paper but are not operationalised. The discourse would change if RTI laws are implemented,” says Zahid Abdullah, Transparency and Inclusion Specialist with Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability (TDEA), citing the landmark Right of Access to Information Act 2017 passed by the National Assembly in October 2017, months after the Senate unanimously passed the Right of Access to Information Bill 2017, granting citizens access to the record of public authorities.
The Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Transparency and the Right to Information Bill 2016 in March 2017. According to this new law, it was made mandatory upon the government to establish the Sindh Information Commission within 100 days. Months later, activists and organisations like Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) raised their voice against the fact that the government of Sindh had failed to do so.
Likewise in Punjab, the Right to Transparency and Information Act was passed in 2013. Perhaps so effectively did the designated information commissioners play their role for the first tenure that after that, commissioners have not been appointed for the second tenure, explains Abdullah. “A mandatory part of the law is ‘proactive disclosure’ of information on part of the government. However, the general assumption is that it is always the citizens who should ask for the information. To become capable of this proactive disclosure of information, the concerned offices need technological know-how and financial support from the government, which they often don’t get,” he adds.
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In his opinion, the role of commissioners of the Information Commission is key and part of their duties is to sensitise government officials as well as advise the government. “They also have to launch awareness-raising campaigns, media campaigns, and provide guidelines to the public as to how they can exercise their rights.”
Other than lack of awareness, political resistance, and an absence of the required information commissions and Public Information Officers (PIO), there are other reasons that hinder the path of citizens aiming to extract information. “One of the main problems is inadequate set-ups for RTI applications and processing,” says Summaiya Zaidi, a lawyer.
Activists from civil society have been pushing for practical implementation of these laws but their efforts meet a dead end due to bad governance and resistance from political quarters. However, Gardezi still encourages citizens to continue asking for information as this is their right. “The operationality of these laws is still undergoing teething pains. But the more people exercise their right, the more those in public offices will have to share the information under pressure. It is demand and supply.”
In 2014, Bolo Bhi, a not-for-profit geared towards advocacy, policy and research in the area of government transparency among others, filed three Freedom of Information requests under the FOI 2002 Ordinance with the Ministry of Information Technology, Pakistan Telecommunications (MOITT). The requests were filed under the Freedom of Information Ordinance (FOI) 2002. “It took months before some information was obtained. At first, we didn’t hear back, so we followed it up with letters to the federal ombudsperson,” says Farieha Aziz, Co-Founder, Bolo Bhi.
She and her team were given some information but not all. “The exclusion clause of the information act was used to deny us access to some of the information. We made the argument based on our legal interpretation of the FOI Act’s exclusion clause,” says Aziz.
While ultimately the Bolo Bhi team had some success in gaining partial information, the average Pakistani is neither aware nor motivated enough to pursue the legal course to get information. “What’s important with RTI requests is that you must be very specific with the question you ask and the information you seek, and clear on who to ask — who has the authority and mandate to provide the information,” advises Aziz.
“You must also be determined and ready to follow up the requests and understand that it can take months before you get something substantive. You might get some information but not all. Don’t let that deter you. Use what you manage to get and then push on to get more. This is a process. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul,” she adds.