Request Problems in Pakistan Documented in Article

5 November 2010

Several examples of the difficulties of accessing information in Pakistan were discussed in a recent article by Zahid Abdullah, who works for Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives.

The Pakistan law, he said, is “a very weak law in the shape of Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and whatever effectiveness it had was watered down through its subordinate rules which were framed in 2004.”

He recounted his own experiences, saying that “bureaucrats denied information requests paddling excuses which one does not know whether to call them flimsy or pathetic or both.”

In some detail, he describes what happened to a request by Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, a citizen based in Islamabad.

On January 13, 2010, he filed an information request to Federal Bureau of revenue (FBR) under Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 asking the FBR to provide certified information about the names, addresses and the fee paid to the lawyers by FBR to represent it in courts from January 1, 2004 to December 21, 2009. On February 22, 2010, FBR provided an answer in one liner: “The required information does not come within the ambit of section 7 of Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002”.

On the intervention of Federal Ombudsman, FBR explained its position on March 4, 2010 and took the plea that the requested information was part of file noting which were exempted under the FIO. (Interestingly, the requester had sought access to the contracts between lawyers and FBR and had never demanded file notings in the first place). FBR also maintained that “it invaded the privacy of the individual. “The constitution of Pakistan gives protection to the privacy of individuals and the complainant is desirous of violating this fundamental right”. No one can claim right to privacy when paid from public funds but look at the great lengths FBR bureaucracy is willing to go, even invoking constitution of the country, to protect information about the fee it paid to the lawyers from public funds.

No wonder, the Federal Tax Ombudsman after hearing both parties on May 10, 2010, in its finding said, “The requested information falls in the category of public record,” and that “FBR is wrong in presuming that complainant is requesting information which is excluded under section 8(a) of FOI Ordinance.” Since decisions of Federal Tax Ombudsman are recommendatory in nature, therefore, it recommended FBR to provide information to requester within 21 days. Instead of compliance, the FBR chose to file representation to the President of Pakistan and prayed him to set aside the information request “in the name of law”.

A similar information request was submitted by Abdullah to the ministry of law and justice in May 2008, asking certified copy of the list of names and addresses of the lawyers hired by the ministry to represent the Federal Government in the Supreme Court and the fee paid to each lawyer.  He recollects:

 The grounds on which the requested information was denied were even flimsier. The Ministry commented to the Ombudsman that “if the required information is provided to the applicant, the same would create unnecessary problems and will open a Pandora’s Box…” The information request was termed as “indirect interference into the working of the government”.

Summing up, Abdullah says: “Politicians need to make bureaucratic functioning open and transparent by making bureaucracy subservient to the will of people. The government is moving in the right direction as it is in the process of finalising the draft of Freedom of Information Bill 2010. Bureaucracies in Bangladesh an India, still prisoners of the past and living in colonial era, resisted the enactment of right to information laws and our bureaucracy is not going to be any exception.”

He concludes:

The challenge for politicians will be to sift bureaucratic shenanigans from legitimate concerns as they finalise the Freedom of Information Bill 2010. Their counterparts in India held bureaucrats at bay and sought an acted upon expert advice from the right to information activists. Congress party is still reaping dividends for enacting a powerful right to information law and hopefully this fact is not lost to the present government.

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