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October 2, 2018

The imperial censorate


October 2, 2018

No one, least of all the ruling class, wants to go under the microscope of public scrutiny and be exposed. Yet 1200 years ago in China, Tai Zhong of the Tang Dynasty, did just that by creating an ‘Imperial Censorate’ to scrutinise his own government, expose bureaucratic inefficiency and official corruption.

The purpose of this was that “Emperors were expected to admit their own imperfection as proof of their love for the truth in fear of ignorance and darkness”. However, Zhong’s lofty principle was too ahead of its time and it took another thousand years – when Sweden adopted the first freedom of information law – before governments finally accepted the right of the people to be informed.

Today, though, one can rightly say that the right to seek, receive, impart, express and disseminate information in the ‘market place of ideas’ is all-encompassing – some call it the mother of all fundamental rights – and is the very bedrock of modern democracy. Critically, public information is a national wealth and must be made available to citizens, without which corruption by public officials cannot be exposed and checked. Secrecy and lack of accessibility to public information allows rampant illegality, power abuse and nepotism to breed and multiply.

People the world over had to fight long and hard for this, which is why they appreciate its value and utility. In India, for example, a workers’ movement which began from Rajasthan and was initially financed by donations from ordinary local people like vegetable and milk vendors, soon caught people’s imagination and spread rapidly throughout India as a national campaign leading to legislation giving right of information to the people.

Pakistanis did not have to struggle for this right; it was given to us on a silver platter through Article 19A via the 18th Amendment. This is the major reason why we have not yet fully realised its potential.

The tragic Model Town incident became the first test case which showed that even the government was not willing to accept the public’s right to access facts. The Punjab government of the time, which found the details of Justice Najafi’s report to be incriminating, refused to publish it; this eventually led to long-drawn litigation in courts. The credit goes to Lahore High Court judges who gave a landmark judgement recognising the right of every citizen to have access to information in all matters of public importance and, while ordering its publication, declared that the government could not repress this.

The implementation of the right to freedom of information is always a balancing act. The balance is struck when the legitimate dissemination of information is followed through, yet deliberate false propaganda is eliminated. The national interest, being of paramount importance, must be protected at all costs and thus any false information spread with the intention to damage a country’s image should be dealt with accordingly. However, what should be avoided is censoring people from sharing true information only on the grounds that it could damage Pakistan’s image. Such tools have often been used by dictators and despots.

One thing I experienced as the caretaker information minister was that if the government functions in a transparent manner and openly explains the reasons for any important decisions, it invariably results in mature public debate and paves the way for constructive solutions. Implementing freedom of information in letter and spirit is therefore an important aid in favour of any government, which should embrace it with open arms if its intentions are clean.

When governments work in secrecy, and withhold people’s right to know, it leads to corrupt practices, and many times even well-intended actions become subject to conspiracy theories. This is why it was made sure by the recent caretaker government that all its actions were explained in public for people to judge impartially. I am happy to see that the existing PTI government is following the same principle because each cabinet decision is being explained before the public.

Yet, the government needs to do much more to show that it sincerely believes in the principle.

For example, the present government’s commitment to the right of people to be informed is being called into question on at least one serious issue – CPEC. Undoubtedly, it is a great project, but its details had been kept shrouded in mystery by the previous government. This has given rise to many misconceptions, one of which is that Pakistan has given huge concessions to Chinese companies without negotiating enough benefits for the Pakistani people.

There has been news recently that after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit, the Saudi government has become very interested in CPEC. There is also news of grants to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia. This too should be good because Pakistan needs to develop economic zones in which foreign investment has to play a vital role. However, to date, no details and open information are forthcoming. This is giving rise to misapprehensions that perhaps Saudi Arabia too will take out chunks from this project without any benefit to Pakistan. In important matters like CPEC, it is the right of the people to know what policy decisions are being taken by the government and what agreements are being executed. Without this, participation from Pakistan’s business community and ownership of the project from the public continue to remain missing.

Secondly, the true spirit of the right as laid down in every declaration, convention and charter, including the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, makes it incumbent upon Pakistan to more effectively implement this right as there is need for much improvement. Currently, the relevant laws obligate each institution and department within the government to appoint a key person who should be in charge of providing information on any matter. I know for a fact that many public bodies and government organisations do not have the key personnel in place and those who have been nominated are hardly ever present. The current bureaucratic structure compels the relevant officers to seek permission from their ‘bosses’ before disclosing information.

The law made by Pakistan has miserably failed and needs urgent amendments. At the same time, the mechanisms of traditional record-keeping need to be significantly reformed and modernised to enable timely provision of information. The government needs to ensure that the officers in charge start disclosing information proactively. Schemes, websites and advertisements that raise awareness about the right to information and its benefits must be introduced.

Finally, in order to truly show its commitment, I would suggest that while bringing legislation in line with the spirit of the right, the government should create a one-window institution, perhaps an information ombudsman on the lines of the Imperial Censorate of Tai Zhong.

The writer is a Supreme Court advocate who served as a caretaker federal

minister in 2018, and was the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2015-16.

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