GLOBALLY the Right to Know day is celebrated on 28thSeptember every year. The objective of observing the day is to share ideas, strategies, and success stories on how the development of the right-to-information laws have led towards genuinely transparent governance and provided a way forward for improving accountability around the world. More than 135 countries have legislated access to information laws. Pakistan was the first South Asian country to enact the Freedom of Information Ordinance (FOI) in 2002 in fulfillment of a condition levied by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). However, under the miliary regime, this ordinance was kept weak and ineffective in terms of ensuring free flow of information. 2010, was a turning point for democracy when the provinces were granted autonomy under the 18th amendment in the constitution of Pakistan, and the citizens were grantedthe fundamental right of access to information through the insertion of Article 19-A,which states “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”. Year2013 wasaprogressive year in terms of the development of Right to Information movement in Pakistan. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab enacted effective Right to Information laws, namely “The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act, 2013” and “The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013”. These laws are helping citizens in exercising their constitutional right of access to information held by public bodies. Sindh has also joined Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by enacting“Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2016” enacted on March 13, 2017. The Federation also repealed the weak FOI 2002 ordinance with an effective “The Right of Access to Information Act in 2017”. And finally, Balochistan province also repealed its ineffective “Balochistan Freedom of Information Act, 2005” and replacedit with “the Balochistan Right to Information Act, 2021” in February 2021. Currently, all four provinces and the federal have promulgated and enacted the necessary RTI legislation, however, gaps in their implementation and up-taking by concerned authorities remain wide. Theimplementation of the Balochistan RTI Act, 2021 has remained challenging since its commencement. Under Section 18 of the Act, the Balochistan government was bound to establish an Information Commission by appointing four Information Commissioners within 120 days of the commencement of the Act. Sadly, more than a year has passed since then, but the government has failed toestablish the required Commission. The implementation of the Sindh RTI Act also remainspoor as the 2ndbatch of Sindh Information Commission was notified in June 2022 with a gap of more than a year. Without the appellate body and designation of PIOs, RTI laws are toothless and dysfunctional in Balochistan and Sindh hence, the citizens’ right to information is systematically denied. Where the nations are celebrating the right to know day, sadly here, we are still debating whether the information can be shared or not, and in practice,it seems there is reluctance on part of the government. It is important to mention three prominent cases that should be a cause of concern for human rights advocates. A citizen, Mukhtar Ahmed, on April 10, 2019, filed an information request under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 to the Registrar, Supreme Court of Pakistan for obtaining information on the sanctioned vs vacant staff details of the apex court. The non-compliance to the request prompted the applicant to lodge an appeal to the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) on May 06, 2019 to intervene to get public information. The PICaccepted the appeal and issued detailed orderwhereby it directed the Registrar of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to disclose the requisite information to the appellant. Instead of complying to the PIC order, the SC registrar, through the attorney general for Pakistan (AGP), challenged PIC’s order before the Islamabad High Court (IHC)and the matter is still pending with the IHC. In a request filed under the RTI laws of the land, public officials are building a secrecy narrative around the supposed invasion of privacy. In the case of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), on July 06, 2021, this writer filed an information request under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 with the Chairman, PCB to obtain information about contracts signed by the PCB with managers of the national cricket team and lawyers/firms engaged to represent the PCB at legal forums. The PCB not only failed to provide information but also refused to comply to the Act. The PCB, through a law firm responded that the PCB is not liable and accountable to provide the information under the Act as it is dissimilar to the other autonomous/semi-autonomous bodies for the reason that PCB generates all its funds through its own resources. The PIC in its detailed order on December 15, 2021, directed that the PCB is publicbodyand is accountable under the Act. Instead of complying the order, PCB filed a writ petition with the Lahore High Court (LHC) and the matter is still pending. Pakistan-Tehreek-Insaf (PTI) claims Transparency and Accountability as its topmost priorities, but unfortunately, PTI member Mushtaq Ghani and others have twice tried to get KP-Assembly exempted from the purview of the KP-RTI Act in 2015 and in 2021. PTI Senator Walid Iqbal and others also tried to exclude parliament from the purview of the federal RTI Act. Fortunately, on the protest of civil society, it could not succeed in evading accountability. Another information request was filed by this writer to the Secretary, Senate on October 15, 2021, to seek foreign visit details of the Chairman, Senators and staff of the Senate for the period of August 2018 to October 2021. The information was not shared and an appeal was lodged with the PIC. Upon the PIC intervention, Secretary Senate responded that the requested information does not fall in the category of “Public Record” and honourable Chairman Senate declared the requisite record “Classified” under Rule 258 of the Rules of Procedures and Conduct of Business in the Senate 2012 and Section 7(f) of the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017.After providing sufficient time and detailed proceedings, the commission issued its order on March 31, 2022 and directed to disclose the requested information to the appellant. The matter is still pending and information is not provided yet despite the Show Cause Notice issued by the Commission. In light of the above three cases and hundreds of other pending cases, it is clear that the state officials are still in their colonial mind-setwhere the citizens are systematically deprived from exercising their constitutional right to information.In this context, we must keep in mind what Thomas Freidman said: “Governments that try to control information are fighting a losing battle and if they bother trying, will face exorbitant costs”.
Introduction of Writer;
(Syed Raza Ali is rights based activist and holds a Master degree in Sociology from the University of Sargodha. He has more than 09 years of experience with various international and national development organisations. His professional areas of focus are project management, advocacy, electoral process, capacity development, transparency and right to information. He has been associated with CPDI, Nutrition International, Mott MacDonald, UNDP and Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA).)