Pakistani RTI Supporters Rally for Law in Punjab Province

25 February 2011

By Zahid Abdullah

The writer is based in Islamabad, Pakistan, and works for the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives

They had gathered to protest about the denial of their right to information.

The venue was the road in front of Rawalpindi Press Club and the date Feb. 22, 2011. There were only sixty of them but they were making history. Never before in the entire history of the country had people held a demonstration to demand their right to information.

They had come to highlight the yawning gap between the professed claims of the provincial government about transparent and good governance and the situation on the ground which denied right to information to 100 million residents of the province.

The catalyst for this event was the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, an advocacy organization in Pakistan. Over the years CPDI has used all advocacy tools and methods to demand effective legislation on right to information. Apart from the federal Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 which is applicable only to the federal ministries and attached departments, there are Balochistan Freedom of information Act 2005 and Sindh Freedom of information Act 2006 and Local Government Ordinance 2001. Province of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtoonkhaw have not done any legislation on right to information.

The existing laws are largely ineffective. They ignore internationally agreed upon principles of good right to information laws, with toothless federal and provincial ombudsman offices as appellant bodies. These offices take forever to decide on information complaints because they were originally established to look into issues of general maladministration and often their officials lack capacity to deal with issues pertaining to information requests. If the legislative landscape presents a dismal picture, so does the flow of information about the way country’s resources are put to use by the elected representatives and public officials. It is a common knowledge that millions change hands on a daily basis in revenue departments while a common person cannot have access to the copy of his own land records without bribing some official.

With the international right to information movement getting momentum in this decade, Pakistan could not remain aloof to the international efforts. It was because of these international efforts coupled with the local initiatives that forced the bureaucracy in Pakistan to budge and put in place laws that talked about providing information to the citizens, though weak ones, instead of plethora of laws that were meant to deny information to citizens. Bureaucracy in Pakistan with all its rules and procedures was established by the British in the united India to protect their own interests. Sixty-four years down the road, it has not redefined itself and not even the successive military and civil governments have tried to reshape master-slave relationship to public servant-citizen relationship.

A silver lining is discernable on an otherwise dark right to information horizon in the country.

Local initiatives, to which CPDI has made a significant contribution and has been on the forefront, have led to the insertion of Article-A in the constitution of the country which recognizes right to information as fundamental human right. This is a major achievement as all the federating units are now constitutionally bound to put in place mechanisms to provide citizens right to information. Major political parties realise that the existing federal law is just an eye-wash and it is going to be repealed through another law.

Province of Punjab has also drafted a good information law which also envisions the establishment of information commission. CPDI has been engaged with the provincial government and helped it draft this law and now building pressure from outside for its enactment. Despite these successes, struggle for free flow of information in the country is going to be a long drawn one.

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