Till the end of the 20th century, only 23 countries had passed legislation focusing on the right to information (RTI). In contrast, in the last 15 years alone, the number of countries with RTI laws has reached 102. This rising trend demonstrates how the world has been moving towards more open governance. Pakistan became the first country in South Asia to promulgate the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance in 2002. However, this didn’t ensure citizens’ access to information. In South Asia, the first effective RTI law was enacted by India in 2005. In global rankings, India has secured the third position in terms of having an effective RTI law. This law is so potent that according to renowned Indian RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, “Post-independence history of India can be bifurcated in two different eras, one pre-RTI Act and the other one, post RTI-Act”. In the last 10 years, the law has changed the dynamics of governance in India completely and the country’s rapid growth can be attributed, at least in part, to its effective RTI law.
In Pakistan, 2013 was a promising year for the RTI movement when Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Punjab enacted effective RTI laws. The PTI-led coalition government took the lead by introducing the RTI Act in K-P, followed by the PML-N government in Punjab doing the same. In some cases, the K-P and Punjab RTI laws proved to be more powerful than the Indian one. Unlike the Indian RTI regime, there is no fee for filing information requests under K-P and Punjab RTI laws. This goes to the greater advantage of citizens interested in seeking information from public bodies. The two provinces fulfilled their constitutional obligation as far as the enactment of effective RTI laws is concerned. The federal FOI Ordinance 2002, Balochistan’s FOI Act of 2005 and Sindh’s FOI Act of 2006 stand nowhere in comparison to the RTI laws of Punjab and K-P.
India has one central and 28 state-level information commissions established under their respective RTI laws and citizens can hold both federal and provincial public bodies accountable. In Pakistan, only K-P and Punjab have established similar information commissions while the FOI law at the federal level is too weak to cater to citizens’ information needs. There is a long list of exclusions in the federal law. If a federal public body does not respond to information requests under the FOI law, the complaint can be filed with the federal Ombudsman, who has no punitive powers. In other words, the FOI Ordinance treats the RTI as an issue of maladministration and not as a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19-A of the Constitution.
Why has the RTI movement in Pakistan been stalled of late? The reason is that our mainstream political parties, excluding the PTI, don’t have the inclination for transparent and accountable governance. If the PTI-led coalition government had not enacted the RTI law in K-P, the PML-N government in Punjab might not have opted for a similar law. Even after the enactment of the RTI law in Punjab, the information commission in the province has been kept understaffed. It took more than a year for this information commission to have an office of its own. Punjab lacks the basic governance pre-requisites and the political will to implement the RTI law effectively. Similarly, the PML-N federal government has been exercising delaying tactics in introducing RTI laws. If we had effective RTI laws at the federal level, many issues pertaining to the transparency of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor would have been automatically resolved.
Secrecy creates distrust and distrust creates conflict. The federal government is not only delaying the enactment of the RTI law at the centre, it has also blocked the extension of K-P’s RTI law to Pata. Similarly, there is no commitment from the PML-N-led coalition government in Balochistan to replace the provincial FOI Act, which is a replica of the federal FOI Ordinance, with an effective RTI law. Similarly, while the PPP should be credited with bringing in the 18th Amendment in which the RTI was recognised as a fundamental right, the party failed to introduce RTI laws in its tenure at the federal level and in Sindh. The PPP and the PML-N must realise that only those political parties that allow for greater transparency and accountability will survive in the end. The appetite for greater transparency within the public will ensure this.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2016.