Effective RTI Law Needed in Pakistan; Model Law Drafted

25 April 2012

By Muhammad Aftab Alam

Alam is the executive director of the newly established  Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA), a new not-for-profit Pakistani independent policy, advocacy, research and training organization. This article first appeared in The News and is reprinted with permission of the author.

“The Indian Right to Information Act, 2005 and its effective implementation have revolutionized the debate on people’s right to information in the world,” one of the panellists said during a recent seminar on Right to Information (RTI) in Islamabad. In fact, Indian RTI Act 2005 has proved to be a paradigm shift in the discourse of access to information or right to know in the world.

Prior to the Indian RTI Act, the debates and discussions on right to information were revolving around the jargons of ‘transparency, reducing corruption’, or ‘ensuring openness in the decision-making processes.’ Despite the fact that more than fifty countries had promulgated the laws on right to information before 2005, none or only a few could actually relate the entire discourse to the common people’s issues.

The debate could hardly allure general public’s interests. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry remained outside the debate of right to information in the world. NGOs, intellectuals, and elite politicians kept the issue confined to their privileged audiences only. Perhaps, due to limited resources and needs, the NGOs and intellectuals could not relate it to the common people. And the politicians! Why would, by the way, they have made it a ‘public issue?’ Making it public could have harmed their vested interests through letting people ask about their malpractices and corruption. Similarly, bureaucrats, both civil and military, seemed happy without public accountability through people’s right to information.

Quite similar to the international paradigm, the debates on the right to know in South Asian region remained confined to the corridors of ‘elite politics’ or ‘academic discourse’ only. The topic could not come out of the drawing room discussions or a debate in the national level elite seminars in the capitals. It was quite fashionable to talk about the right to know or access to information. Ordinary people like street vendors, poor farmers, labourers, and other marginalised communities have never been brought on-board regarding the right to know. They had no right to inquire into the much-disputed issues such as water distribution system wherein the lands of powerful are irrigated while the poor have not a single drop of water. They cannot ask about the ever-increasing prices of commodities.

There was no right to ask why there is a huge complex for basic health unit in their vicinity without any doctor and medicines. Moreover, they could not ask why huge storage of wheat and other essential commodities is rotting and millions are starving and forced to live without food.

India Sets Example

Nevertheless, the efforts for and enactment of the Indian RTI Act changed the entire paradigm. As a result, the debate and discussion on the right to know came out of air-conditioned rooms and seminar halls to the streets and public gatherings (or public hearings). Now every Shanty, Murli, Puja, and Rahim has got the right to ask for any and every kind of information from the government. Moreover, the Indian law has contributed to a great extent in reducing corruption and bringing transparency in the official functioning along with empowering marginalised groups.

Whether it is the issue of ration cards and ration distribution; investigation into big scams, and scandals such as involvement of top politicians in getting kickbacks in big contracts; investigation into Mumbai attacks, or disclosure of assets of higher judiciary judges and parliamentarians, the Indian right to information authorises everyone — intellectuals, NGOs, activists, politicians, labourers, and farmers — without any discrimination to get access to the relevant information in a very efficient manner. Learning from this unprecedented success, Bangladesh enacted its RTI Act in 2009.

Problems With Pakistan Regime

In Pakistan, the law on freedom of information was promulgated in 2002. Limited scope and application; exorbitant exemptions; absence of an institutional framework to implement the law; complicated and lengthy process for disposal of information requests; and ineffective appellate forum: all this has made the law redundant and useless. This is evident from the fact that since its promulgation in 2002, only a few hundred applications could be filed under the Ordinance. Less than hundred applications could be disposed of by the Ombudsman. Moreover, the people could not relate themselves to the law as well as the right given to them. Quite expectedly, the law and issue remained as an elite class discussion.

Due to its limitations and inadequacies, civil society representatives had already rejected the Ordinance altogether. Nevertheless, the passage of 18th Amendment and inclusion of Article 19-A in the Constitution brought a new life in the debate on the right to information. For the first time in Pakistan, the people’s right to information has been recognised as a constitutional right. Now it is required to have a subordinate legislation to effectively implement the right as enshrined in Article 19-A.

Model Law Readied

Considering the inadequacy, irrelevance and ineffectiveness of Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002 and need of a comprehensive subordinate legislation for this constitutional provision, Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) commissioned the ALPH Consultants and advocates — an Islamabad-based law and consultancy firm — to prepare a draft of a Bill on the Right to Information with the support of The Asia Foundation (TAF). The draft law, which was prepared using the most modern and innovative techniques of intensive legislative drafting research, has been published recently and presented to the federal minister for information and broadcasting during a seminar in Islamabad.

The draft RTI law provides holistic perspective to address the issue of absence of right to information to the public. The draft RTI law proposes to have an independent and autonomous institutional framework, i.e. the Federal and Provincial Information Commissions to effectively implement the law. It defines right to information as “right to inspection of work, documents, records; taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records; taking certified samples of material; obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device.”

The draft law proposes to include all authorities, bodies, or institutions of the government, which are established or constituted by or under the constitution or by any Federal/Provincial law and includes bodies which are owned, controlled, or financed by the government in the definition of a public body.

Limited Exceptions

The draft law endeavours to provide access to information not only to the elites but also to the common people. Ranging from information about the essentials of daily life to national level projects and decisions, one can ask for all kinds of information from or about any public body. However, this is not an absolute right and certain exceptions are inevitable. These are limited only to a few categories of information such as information relating to sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan, the security, strategic, scientific, or economic interests of the state; or expressly forbidden to be published by any court of law or tribunal; or the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament; or it is relating to trade secrets or intellectual property; or available to a person in his fiduciary relationship; or received in confidence from foreign government; or the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person; or which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders; or which relates to personal information; or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual.

Besides, the bill proposes to penalise officials who delay in the disposal of information requests. The right to appeal against the decision on information request has been provided in the Bill. Moreover, whistle-blowers have also been protected.

In a nutshell, the draft law is a comprehensive solution to all issues and problems relating to the right to information and access to information in the country. The law can be enacted at both federal and provincial level; however, the question of federal and provincial level legislation is left for the legislature to decide about. The draft law, which is available with the Federal Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as well as the CRSS, must be taken as ready-to-use draft to move forward.

For a democracy, the information is considered as oxygen and right to information is essential for healthy democratic process. Only an informed society can make informed decision and elect their representatives as per their aspiration. The information is also vital for life and liberty of the people. An effective and comprehensive law on RTI is needed to promote an informed society as well as ensure protection of right to life and liberty of the common people.

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