Enactment of federal, provincial information laws demanded
Empowering citizens with right to information can minimize flood damages to infrastructure
Right to information has been recognized as a fundamental right through the insertion of Article 19-A in the Constitution under the 18th Amendment but little efforts have been made so far to effectively enforce this right. Federal and provincial governments need to initiate processes for translating this constitutional right into reality.
Civil society organizations should be taken on board in all such processes of enacting federal and provincial information laws. Participants expressed these views today in ‘Stakeholder Consultation on Article 19-A: Roadmap for Implementation of Right to Information held at Holiday Inn hotel in Lahore.
The event was organized by Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) and was largely attended by law students, government officials, and civil society organizations.
Mr. Safdar Mahmood, Consultant of Punjab Ombudsman, stated that the Freedom of Information Ordinance (FOIO) 2002 is inherently flawed. He said that it has been his consistent view that noting on the file and minutes of meetings should not be treated as privileged documents. “It could be that contentions presented by a party not even discussed in the noting part and yet a decision was made against that party. If noting part remains confidential, the affected party will find it difficult to challenge the related decision that is adversely affecting him”.
He also demanded that the right to information should be applicable to private bodies like private hospitals as well; however, the FOIO 2002 is not applicable to private bodies. A good law would not require applicants to disclose the purpose of information request as is the case with Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002.
In his remarks, Mr. Mukhtar Ahmed Ali said that it was needed to determine as to what extent havoc reeked by the floods owed to natural calamity and to what extent it was due to corruption in the construction of roads, bridges, river banks and public buildings. Expanding on the theme of correlation between citizens right to information and damage to infrastructure caused by floods, he lamented that in each instance of floods in the country, there was massive damage to the infrastructure as roads, bridges and public building were not built according to laid down standards. If the citizens had access to public documents through effective right to information law, they will be able to determine whether public buildings and other infrastructures were being built according to the building codes by examining the copies of the contracts.
Responding to an apprehension expressed by a ministry official that if people had freedom of information, government departments will be inundated with information requests, he shared that bureaucracy expressed similar fears wherever demands for right to information were raised. However, these fears have been found misplaced wherever right to information laws have been enacted.
If the government departments are able to streamline information through proper indexation, make it available to citizens proactively through web sites, government officials will be able to handle information requests even if these were in great numbers. He further said that there were very few laws enacted by our parliament and provincial assemblies and laws of the colonial era were still in place as there was the issue of effective utilization of time by Parliament and provincial assemblies.
In her remarks, Ms Azma Zahid Bukhari, Parliamentary Secretary for Youth and culture said that there was unbridled freedom of expression in the country. Freedom of expression and right to information should be guided by a sense of responsibility. She lamented the way some of TV channels were breaching right to privacy of individuals by thrusting their mikes in front of traumatized rape victims and telecasting pictures with live running commentary of people fighting for survival in floods.