“Democratic progress requires the ready availability of true and complete information. To act otherwise is to give way to despotic secrecy.”  ~ Pierre E. Trudeau

The world’s first Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation was adopted by the Swedish parliament in 1766.  Since then, 100 other countries, including 16 African states have enacted different versions of the “Right to Information’ (RTI) laws.  Most Muslim countries have so far chosen to stay away from this arena.    The same however cannot be said for Pakistan, which had a Freedom of Information law in place as early as 2002.  While Sindh, Baluchistan and the Federal Government  have decided to live with their original (rather archaic) FOI laws, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab did remarkably well by developing greatly improved ‘Right to Information’  Acts in 2013.

To what extent do the Pakistani RTI laws deliver on their stated and implied intentions?    Thirteen years down the road, having conducted over 100 foreign-funded FOI seminars and training sessions, one needs to pause and take  stock of where we stand on this ‘much talked about’ legislation.  Can a citizen exercise his ‘right to know’ and succeed in getting the desired information or does this right exist on paper only?  Does the government readily respond, deny or simply ignore the ‘few and far between’ requests that it receives?

A survey spread over past several months has provided some interesting insights into the hugely dysfunctional RTI laws in Pakistan.  Beginning from the Federal Government, the President of Pakistan took a stand for not providing information on his Haj entourage and expenses on the plea that “the constitutional and statutory provisions indicate that the President’s Secretariat is not a ‘public body’ within the meaning of the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002.”   Thus the highest office of the land, although existing at  tax payers’ expense, believes that the Article 19A of the Constitution is perhaps intended for some other species.

Also at the Federal level, a similar refusal plea was taken by the National Assembly of Pakistan, when asked by a citizen to provide attendance record of the parliamentarians.  The National Assembly felt so offended about providing such ‘sensitive’ information that it made a representation to the President, against the Federal Ombudsman’s instructions to comply with the FOI requirements.  It may be fair to conclude that the National Assembly too does not believe in Article 19A of the Constitution.

Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Sindh and Baluchistan provinces were asked to provide information on total number of prohibited and non-prohibited bore licenses issued in the last 7 years.  Despite the passage of three months, none of the four provinces either acknowledged or provided the requested information. Another request seeking information on total number of government vehicles was completely ignored by Sindh and Baluchistan while KP and Punjab provided less than 5% information about government vehicles held by them.

Two departments of KP province (Galliyat Development Authority and the Rural Development) failed to respond when asked to provide information about plots allotted to individuals in Nathiagali, Dungagali and Ayubia in the last 12 years.  These delinquent cases were referred to the Provincial Information Commissioner KP after waiting for three months. (The law makes it obligatory for a public body to provide the requested information within 10 working days.)

In February 2014, the IG Police Sindh was asked to provide details of policemen and police mobiles deployed on VIP duties.  In blatant violation of the FOI law, this information has been denied to the applicant since the last 15 months.  A number of reminders to the IG Police and the Sindh Provincial Ombudsman have been just as fruitless.

The apathy and contempt shown by government departments of all four provinces reduces the RTI law to an irrelevant piece of paper –  a fake showpiece to project our enlightened and progressive image.  It would however be unfair not to mention the two rare but unusually efficient responses received from Sindh and KP on information relating to schools and teachers. These are welcome exceptions to the otherwise murky waters of our ‘right to know’.

Keeping records of any kind is bad enough.  Sharing them with ordinary citizens seems even more disdainful.  Article 19A may have improved the aesthetics of the constitution but certainly made no dent on the bureaucracy’s  ‘right to say no’.