A lesser known fundamental right
A tragedy of commons contributed to by a vast majority of humans is of abandoning the habit of reading, or never taking it up from the very start. Thus we usually do not read the terms and conditions before agreeing to bank policies, manuals prior to using appliances, religious scriptures before choosing religious ideology, and constitutions before becoming an adult and active member of any society. Pakistan, like many other countries, faces the same problem to date when it comes to its citizens being incognisant of their fundamental rights – almost all of them. The obvious ones, such as freedom to live, are known by the lion’s share but what still needs to be solved is the mystery of making life worth living in this land of the pure. The renowned ones, freedom to choose religion, to illustrate, have gained immense popularity over the years owing to the controversies that are associated with them, especially when it comes to their application. The rest (an overwhelming bulk to be honest!) remains unmentioned and unquoted. One of those belonging to the third category is the right of every citizen of Pakistan to information, a fundamental right much less heard of and even lesser acknowledged.
Though the timeline for legislation regarding right to information in Pakistan suggests that the real struggle began in 1990s, the world was not much ahead of us. While nearly 100 countries have laws that grant individuals a general right to access information held by public bodies, only 13 had such laws till 1990. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) describes information as “the oxygen of democracy” owing to its importance in the processes of decision-making and opinion-forming. A form of government that claims to be of, by and for the people stands on the pillars of good governance and accountability, both of which require public to scrutinise the actions of leaders, hence making access to information a key tool in combating corruption. While the term ‘freedom of expression’ is mostly understood in its literal context, the ICCPR states: “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
It was on 28 September 2002 that organisations promoting freedom of information (FOI) all over the globe joined heads in Bulgaria and founded FOI Advocates Network, a worldwide coalition aiming to endorse the right of access to information for all the people “in order to raise awareness about people’s right to access government information while promoting freedom of information as essential to both democracy and good governance”. The UNESCO General Assembly, in 2015, declared the day as “International Day for the Universal Access to Information”, or simply “International Right to Know Day”, a day about which many of us did not know at all.
For Pakistan, section 7 of the Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Act, 2010 inserted a new Article 19-A after Article 19 whereby every citizen was granted “the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”. This amendment, however, is a fruit of an enduring journey. The first ever FOI Bill was tabled in Senate in 1990 by Professor Khursheed Ahmad followed by Malik Qasim, Chairperson of Public Accounts Committee, played a significant role in preparing draft of FOI law having realised the significance of such a provision for the citizens. The State formalised RTI in October 2002 through the FOI Ordinance, under the auspices of the World Bank. It proved to pave the way for Balochistan FOI Act, 2005, Sindh FOI Act, 2006, Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013 and Progressive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act, 2013 despite carrying several lacunas in it.
After years of delaying and drafting, the Right of Access to Information Bill was unanimously passed by the Senate in 2017, granting citizens complete access to the record of public authorities. According to the bill, all public records should be made available, which include those in printed, written or any form, transactions involving transfer of property and expenditure undertaken by a public body, any information in possession of a public body in which public may have a legitimate interest, information regarding grant of approvals, licenses and allotments, benefits, and contracts made by a public body. A request could be made by any Pakistani to seek information from aforementioned realms by paying some amount which is to be fixed later, after which the principal officer in these departments is bound to provide the applicant with the required information within three to ten days. In case the relevant information is unavailable, the officer will have to give it in black and white.
However, there also exists a list of records which may not be sought, including the official record of armed forces, defence installations, matters of defence and national security, details of individuals’ bank accounts, issues related to law enforcement and public safety, all internal working documents of a public body such as proposals for cabinet decisions, information associated with a scientific or technical research that might expose or damage the concerned organisation, records declared by the government as classified any disclosure which would violate intellectual property, records related to personal privacy of any individual, and private documents provided to a public body on the condition that it will not be disclosed to a third person.
Thus laws now exist. All that needs to be done is to spread awareness among the masses regarding this right of theirs. Apart from using social, electronic and print media platforms to increase awareness among public regarding the usage of this fundamental right, information about RTI can also be included in educational curricula. Effective educational measures can help in seeking the attention of the general public as a whole, and the youth in particular, in how the usage of RTI can lead to survival, sustenance and security of life. A relevant chapter can be included in the course content of civic education and social sciences at the post-secondary level. Additionally, for greater penetration of the idea, a public attention notice about the importance of the right to information and how its usage can radically alter the social conditions can be added on the back cover of the textbooks at the secondary level. In this way, the message will resonate beyond the students to their parents and wider community.
Civil society organisations like Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) are also playing their part in increasing public interest and participation. This civil society also serves as a watchdog for RTI application by government subsidy, if required, to ensure accountability and implementation of RTI. CPDI, in particular, specialises in five sectors of development, one of which is Transparency and Right to Information.
Thus spreading awareness is a collective responsibility that lies on the shoulders of the whole society. It is us for whom this provision has been generated. It is us in whose hands lies its fate.