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Wednesday July 24, 2024

Right to information

By Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani
September 29, 2023

The International Day for Universal Access to Information, also recognized as the Access to Information Day and Right to Know Day, was observed on September 28 across the world, including Pakistan. The decision to dedicate a global day for raising awareness about the significance of access to information in the promotion of human rights, democratic values and social justice was announced during the 74th General Assembly of the United Nations held in October 2019.

Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 declared access to information as an essential part of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. According to Unesco, access to information could be termed as a fundamental right and a key pillar in building inclusive knowledge societies.

Similarly, under Article 19 of the constitution of Pakistan, the state has given all citizens the right to access information, but it is also an undeniable fact that some black sheep in the ranks of our bureaucracy have prevented citizens from exercising this constitutional right.

However, in my view, the passing of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 is the landmark achievement in our parliamentary history. According to the act, all public bodies of the federal government, including courts and non-governmental organizations, are obliged to provide the requested information to every citizen within ten working days. Every institution is required to appoint a public information officer (PIO) within three months and provide their details on the official website whereas basic information and details about the institution such as organization chart, details of officials with responsibilities, guidelines, and public policies, etc must be available on their website.

If the applicant is unable to get the information within the prescribed time period, they can file an appeal against the concerned institution in the Pakistan Information Commission, which will get the information from the concerned institution within two months. Neglecting or disobeying the decisions of the commission are termed as contempt of court while the commission, which has judicial powers, can also order fines and imprisonment for destroying the office records or violate the said act.

Copies of some landmark judgments available on the official website of Information Commission of Pakistan reveal many interesting facts about how the commission, under the leadership of Chief Information Commissioner Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqui, is playing a pivotal role in empowering the common man despite limited resources and various challenges.

Analyzing the appeals filed by the citizens, it is found that most of the petitions are related to enquiry reports against officers in public institutions, merit list of candidates, recruitment criteria and total number of sanctioned vacancies including persons with disabilities and transgender. In the same way, people have also shown interest in knowing the final audit paragraphs and audit reports of government institutions, FIRs, bills presented in parliament, and salary, benefits and asset details of government officials.

Apparently, there is very little awareness among citizens about the law of access to information. Most institutions prefer to reject these requests by declaring the required information as classified or confidential for no reason, although there are clear guidelines in this regard. A study of the Information Commission report shows that in developing countries like Pakistan, obtaining information from government institutions is still a big challenge. Moreover, some laws and regulations from the British imperial era are in force which unnecessarily restrict the flow of information.

I think that in such a situation, when corruption has spread everywhere in Pakistan, and the waste of public money, the violation of merit in public institutions and reports of corruption and irregularities in public projects and development works have become norm, proper use of the Right to Information Act by ordinary citizens, especially journalists, can be very beneficial in fostering a culture of accountability, transparency and oversight in our society.

The writer is a former member of the

National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council.

He tweets/posts @RVankwani