Law’s delay: Information seekers run against wall of bureaucracy

Without teeth, freedom of Information law falls short of goals

Qaiser Butt July 16, 2015
Law’s delay: Information seekers run against wall of bureaucracy

ISLAMABAD: The government may have enacted a freedom of information law over a decade ago, but an absolute lack of enforcement provisions has often meant that citizens seeking greater transparency from the government often find themselves running up against disinterested or obstructionist bureaucrats who appear to be under no legal obligation to make the requested disclosures.

This revelation was made in the 2014 Annual Report of the Federal Ombudsman’s Office, which states that the Ombudsman received 127 complaints over the past year, of which it admitted 101 for hearings.

In an ironic twist, even the Federal Ombudsman’s office does not disclose which departments or individual civil servants were found to be violators of the law, even though it admits to have provided “relief” to at least 16 of the cases it dealt with. The report also does not delve into the nature of the complaints, or the requests themselves.

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The Freedom of Information Ordinance was promulgated in 2002 by then-president Pervez Musharraf. However, it did not go into effect until October 26, 2006, when it was approved by Parliament. The goal of the law, like similar laws around the world, is to require the government and its officials to disclose information requested by citizens, so as to inculcate a culture of transparency.

There are exemptions from the law, of course. For example, the law does not compel the government to provide any information about the military or national security, any records that might violate individual privacy, or the minutes of meetings or intermediary opinions and recommendations made by officials.

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However, the law appears to be structured to protect the bureaucracy rather than the public’s interests. “There is no penalty under this law for officers who delay, deny or provide incorrect information,” said one official at the Law Ministry who wished to remain anonymous. “Instead, the person seeking information may be fined up to Rs10,000 if their request is found to be ‘malicious, frivolous, or vexatious’.”

Experts believe the law is far weaker than comparable laws in other countries. “Yes, I think Pakistan’s 2002 Freedom of Information Ordinance is much weaker than India’s 2005 Right to Information Act,” said the Law Ministry official.

Read: Limited disclosures: District courts shy away from providing information under RTI law

The Indian law allowed for the creation of Information Commissions at the central and state levels, and requires those commissions to impose a fine of up to INR 25,000 for officials who fail to comply with information requests, in addition to any other disciplinary action that may be taken against such officials.

By contrast, the Pakistani law says that if an official fails to respond to a freedom of information request within 30 days, the person or entity making the request can then send it to the head of whichever government organisation they are requesting the information from. If that fails, they can contact the Federal Ombudsman, who can then determine the validity of the request.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2015. 


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