Call for freedom of information

Lahore, October 18: Amendments to the Freedom of
Information Ordinance, repeal of the Official
Secrets Act, and the obligation of the government
to disseminate information proactively, were
termed essential for empowering people,
transparency and accountability, at a
consultation on the right to know at HRCP the
other day.

The discussion highlighted the shortcomings of
the FOI Ordinance 2002, the possibilities of
learning from experiments in the region, and
focused on future strategies for ensuring
government accountability and transparency.

Former senators Farhatullah Babar and Shafqat
Mehmood, Editor of The Nation Mr. Arif Nizami,
Secretary-General of Safma Mr. Imtiaz Alam,
Executive Director of Centre for Civic Education
Mr. Zafarullah Khan, Executive Director of Centre
for Peace and Development Initiatives Mr. Mukhtar
Ahmad, Council Members of HRCP Dr. Mehdi Hassan
and Salima Hashmi, senior journalist Abbas
Rasheed, HRCP Director I.A.Rehman and HRCP
National coordinator Hussain Naqi participated in
the discussion.

The culture of secrecy and the attitudes
prevailing amongst government officials have
curtailed the development of an open society.
There is absolute lack of freedom of information
across the country and those affected by this
include all citizens. While there does exist an
ordinance, the Freedom of Information Ordinance
2002, it is flawed, it makes access to
information extraordinarily difficult and not
many people are aware of its existence.

Information enables people to make informed
decisions and choices and keep tabs on elected
representatives. All citizens, even the poorest
of the poor, pay a range of indirect taxes to the
government. They, therefore, deserve to know how
and where public funds are spent by the
government. This enables citizens to meaningfully
exercise their rights and determine who is
responsible for any violations. The right to
information exists for all citizens and there can
be no justice without any right to know.

There is lack of awareness amongst the public of
the general rights in terms of seeking
information from the government. At the same
time, officials are not sensitized towards their
duty to provide information to those who seek it.
The local government bodies, for example, are
required to display information on boards
regularly.

The environment transcending from the top is not
conducive for developing an open society as it is
enshrined in secrecy. The culture, therefore,
needs to be changed for the law to become
effective as it can not really become operative
in an atmosphere where facts are concealed and
hidden.

The speakers suggested that the struggle for
ensuring right to information for all needs to be
part of a bigger struggle. While the media must
highlight the issue, the civil society must also
lobby with parliamentarians for either evolving a
new law or refining the amended version. There
must be a rule to punish those willfully giving
wrong information to the public and placing
before the parliament.

The participants discussed the national RTI Act
of India that came into effect from October 2005
and provides freedom to every citizen to secure
access to information under the control of public
authorities. The growing demand for
accountability of government officials in India
was stated to be the result of a collective
struggle by several organizations that remained
at the forefront of the struggle since 1996 in
order to get an effective law legislated.

The participants asserted that citizens in the
country need to address issues dealing with the
daily lives of people, including water and
sewerage, just like citizens across Delhi are
using the DRTI Act to seek information on issues
related to their daily lives like road
maintenance, laying water and sewage pipes,
sanitation and ration distribution.

Information offers a short cut to development and
democracy. The Right to Information Act of India
has provided the public with a tool to question
the government. While there is a serious lack of
political will to transform the closed system of
governance in Pakistan, the citizens have also
taken a back seat and accepted it. The citizens
must be committed to and willing to change this
attitude.

P.S.

* Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | October 25, 2006 | Dispatch No. 2311 - Year 8.

* I. A. Rehman is Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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