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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Right to Information in Pakistan

Constitutions of all the great democracies of the world share some common traits when it comes to the rights of the common man. This is so not just because they know the importance of the public opinion of the government but also because all such common traits are in fact the very spirit of a government that is truly democratic. Whereas a dictatorial monarch will curb every reasoning voice and turn down every pointing finger, a democratic government will lend a keen ear to criticism for it and tend to resolve the issues. Freedom of speech and the right to know are the two fundamental rights that distinguish a democratic state from a dictatorial realm. Freedom of information laws give access to the general public to the data held by national government. There is always a legal process to establish the right to know and have access to government-held information.
The right to information is the touchstone of other freedoms and even in the present age the governments ignore it even when it formally exists. Information is a public good and right of information is a weapon that a common citizen should be armed with for it empowers the civil society to keep a check and control corruption in departments and even make an assessment of how far the country has made progress from a certain point in time. It is like a scanning of the working of governmental body and can be beneficial in treating the epidemics like neglect of duty, misuse of power, corruption, favoritism, social injustice and the like. In a democratic republic right to information should be as basic as the right to breathe, not just on the national level but also on the local level. A common man should have easy access to all the information he requires on anything that bothers him in the city including any policy devised by the local administration.
We are living in the age of wisdom and knowledge where even a common man is well aware of his legal rights, it is for this reason that today many countries of the world are introducing such laws so as to give access to all the required information to the common man. Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1776 is the oldest one known while in Pakistan it was the historic 18th Amendment in April 2010 that ensured right to information by inserting a new Article 19-A in the Constitution acknowledging the right of citizens to the required information. Pakistan has thus joined the list of more than 50 countries where right to information is guaranteed to its citizens. The Article 19A allows access to information in the following words, “Every citizen shall have the right to access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.” The Constitution of Pakistan embodies all the fundamental rights of citizens and insertion of Article 19A further expands the scope of fundamental rights given in the Constitution. This will ensure a step forward toward good governance, effective policymaking, transparency, and active participation of people in the public affairs.
The basic principle in devising laws allowing access to information is that the burden of proof falls on the body from whom the information is required, if the information is not disclosed then a genuine reason has to be given for withholding the same else the concerned body can be held liable for violation of a constitutional right.  Inducting Article 19A in the Constitution of Pakistan can be helpful not only to the public but to the government also in so many ways. Whereas it will ensure protection of public rights it will also create awareness among them as to their own rights, which means that they will become vigilant about their rights and knock the doors to justice for any violation thereof. At the same time it will have indirect effect on the working of the government as well as governmental departments would be well aware that anything they do will be open to public access and they can be easily held responsible for violation of laws, neglect of duty and corruption. It is also helpful in bringing home to the common man what a government is capable of. When everything that goes in black and white is open to common man’s access, government will take effective measures in devising effective policies, make right use of the taxes collected by the public and address the grievances of the public timely. However, having the right to information is one thing and actually grabbing it is quite another story. Since, in Pakistan the law about right to information is still new, not many people are aware of it and it is only with the passage of time that the fruit of this legislation will ripe and only time will tell that to what extent it has been helpful in eradication of social evils and injustice and to what extent the law is being followed in its true perspective. It is only when the understanding of the law will be preached to the common man that a new dawn will break in the country. Laws about freedom to information have effectively played their role in ensuring protection of fundamental rights of citizens where anyone can question deviation from the normal course and any malpractice. The right to information is a hallmark of true democracies all over the world and the nations making the right use of it can make better electoral choices. Well informed taxpayers can know that their money did not go wasted and that it has been rightly used for the purpose it was collected for, informed citizens can hold accountable the concerned for illegal budget and public spending. The law about having access to information is there now, it is for the citizens to understand what power has been transferred in their hand and it is only when the citizens realize the right use of this power that they can get rid of all the social evils and see the country rising to a whole new horizons.