The legislation on people’s right to get their hands on crucial information may be weak in its present form but it must be used to hold the government accountable, said experts at a seminar organised on Saturday by Shehri - Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE).
In her welcome speech, Shehri’s general secretary, Amber Alibhai, shed light on the role of the organisation in trying to facilitate good governance by advocating transparency. She emphasised it was important for citizens to be proactive about seeking their fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Constitution and legislations of all state institutions.
Alibhai said that according to Article 19(A) of the Constitution, every citizen has the “right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.”
In his presentation, Sameer Hamid Dodhy of Shehri said that Article 19(A) has strengthened and supported the laws that govern Pakistan. He went on say the effectiveness of the freedom of information was much like sunlight, which is the best disinfectant.
Dodhy said the Freedom of Information Act guarantees access to certain data held by the state. He then explained how and where the law is applicable - which state institutions can be asked to share data and what type of information can be gleaned from them by the ordinary citizen. Dodhy also explained the type of information which was exempted from disclosure to the public.
He said that when asked a query, the government department was bound to provide the information within 21 days.
While talking to The Express Tribune, Dodhy said, “The right of information enables citizens to know true facts and objectively evaluate and monitor the performance of the government.
This law is critical for strengthening good governance, accountability and transparency.” He added that the Act was an important part of the feedback loop that can improve governance.
Dr Syed Raza Ali Gardezi of Shehri-CBE also spoke at the session. He talked about his organisation’s experience in invoking the Freedom of Information Act and how successful it was in obtaining the desired data.
Then he explained to the audience, step-by-step, how to file a request to government departments for information. At the end of the session he conducted an interactive exercise with the participants, asking them to file requests for information on the subject of their interests.
While talking to The Express Tribune Gardezi said, “The Freedom of Information Act is a toothless tiger.
The legislation is weak and need to be altered to bring transparency in different departments.”
He added that as the law stands, people have to wait for a considerable amount of time before they get their hands on data - sometimes it takes up to a month to get information.
“Moreover, if a department doesn’t provide you the information you asked for, no penalty will be imposed on it,” said Gardezi. “When you approach the ombudsman to take action against the department, it takes more than a year to get a decision.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 2nd, 2013.
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