Our right to know

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Knowledge is power

 

 

The right to information is a valuable fundamental right. This right is recognised in all modern democracies. While acknowledging special procedures to ensure proper oversight for limited realms of state-secrecy, it provides citizens with access to a wide range of official documents and records ensuring good governance within the state. In Pakistan, however, citizens are generally kept unaware as to the functioning of public bodies. And, as a result, citizens often fail to hold the state accountable for bad governance and the protection of their fundamental rights. Article 19-A of the 1973 Constitution provides that “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”. The Pakistan Right to Information Act 2013 and the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 further ensures that every citizen should be able to acquire required information and documents from public offices. Other provinces have also legislated similar law with some procedural variations.

Under the Punjab Act, all citizens are entitled to have information about official staff, proceedings, and the decisions of public bodies including court, tribunal, commission or board. Any person can apply for this information whether he is aggrieved or not. All public bodies constituted under any law or funded by the government are required to give information to citizens. State-run corporations like PIA, WAPDA, NADRA, OGRA, PEMRA, Pakistan Railways, and autonomous bodies like universities and chartered educational institutions are also bound to provide this service.

Every citizen has a legal right to access official documents and records except those pertaining to defence and security, the legitimate commercial interest of a public body, the prevention of crime or the administration of justice, and the private information of other citizens. All exclusion and classification must be accompanied by a record of reasons for such exclusion.

Under the Punjab Act, public bodies are required to nominate Public Information Officers. A citizen can file an application seeking information to such officers. One can also directly approach the head of a relevant public body. The application seeking information should be precise and concise. It can be written on a plain piece of paper. It should provide the applicant’s contact details and postal address. It should also describe with accuracy which information is required. The applicant is not required to disclose his motive for getting the information. The application should normally receive a response within fourteen days. In any case, this period will not exceed twenty-eight days. In case of life or liberty of any person, the information should be provided within two days. There is no fee for seeking information under the Act except necessary expenses of copying, etc. The information cannot be refused without assigning reasons. It is suggested that the application should also be assigned a tracking number so that the applicant may monitor progress and fate of his/her application.

In case the requested information is not given by the Public Information Officer, the applicant has two options: First, he can approach the head of the public body for an Internal Review. On such an application, the head of the public body will be required to respond within fourteen days addressing all important issues including evaluation of reasons assigned for refusal and alleged negligence of Public Information Officer. Second, the applicant may apply to the Punjab Information Commission. The Commission is required to decide on such application within thirty days or sixty days if there are good reasons for the delay. If the Public Information Officer fails to provide information without any lawful excuse, he may be proceeded against in departmental proceedings and, secondly, the Commission may impose a financial penalty up to Rs50,000. In case of federal bodies, an applicant can also approach the Mothasib and Federal Tax Ombudsman. In any case, one can file complaint to the Superior Courts for redressal of grievance against provincial and federal public bodies.

Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between what the law says and what is actually happening in Pakistan. Particularly, the uneducated and poor segments of the society hesitate to peep through the doors of public bodies. It is, therefore, partly the duty of print and electronic media, civil society and professional organisations, including pro bono public interest litigation undertaken by lawyers, to speak for the right to information as a fundamental right of the people. It will promote accountability, strengthen democracy, reinforce the governance, reduce corruption and irregularities, improve development schemes and service delivery, and facilitate participation in decision making.

Knowledge will empower the citizens to speak against injustice of every kind. This knowledge will provide a check on the public bodies — the ultimate check of ‘the people of Pakistan’ on their representative institutions i.e., the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary as per spirit of the Constitution.

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