KARACHI: Being responsible citizens and taxpayers, it is our right to know where our money is spent. Article 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan grants one the right to access information in all matters of public importance. The information can be used to support complaints regarding the operations of any public department to make a stronger case in the court of law.
Pakistan was the first country in South Asia to have promulgated the Freedom of Information Ordinance in 2002. The Act, however, has not yet achieved its true potential, lamented participants at the workshop, titled ‘Freedom of Information (FOI),’ organised by the non-governmental organisations, Shehri and Bolo Bhi, on Saturday.
Dr Syed Raza Ali Gardezi of Shehri, in his welcome address at the workshop, called the ‘right to information’, the mother of all rights. “You cannot know what you are entitled to if you don’t have sufficient knowledge about it,” said Gardezi. He stressed that freedom of information was important to strengthen good governance, accountability and transparency. Less than 2,000 applications had been submitted under the law since its inception, he pointed out.
On the historical background of the legislation on Freedom of Information at the federal and provincial levels, Shehri member Sameer Hamid Dodhy said that a public body, such as a ministry, division or department of the federal and provincial governments or any offices controlled by them, could be asked to share its data.
He further described the types of data, which can be accessed through the law and what type of information and records were exempt from disclosure.
Explaining the process of invoking the FOI Ordinance, Dodhy said that invoking the FOI Act does not denote registration of a complaint. “You can only ask the public body to share its data which can then be used to support a complaint that you may wish to register.” He added that that the information sought in the FOI application must be specific and that the application should be addressed to the relevant department and the designated officer of that department.
When asked a query, the relevant government department or office was bound to provide the information within 21 days, said Dodhy. In case a response was not received within 21 days, a complaint could be registered with the head of the department or the ministry. If the applicant still did not receive a response within 30 days, then the person can approach the provincial or federal ombudsman to register a complaint against the department.
In his presentation, Gardezi informed the participants about Shehri’s experience in invoking the FOI Act in terms of the applications filed and the response received from the relevant departments. Of the 261 applications filed by Shehri, they had managed to receive a response in 40 of them with the interference from the ombudsman. At least 35 applications had received no response yet while another 171 application were still in process.
In the final part of the workshop, Gardezi outlined the salient features of writing an FOI application which comprised an interactive exercise for the benefit of the participants to educate them on the way to fill out an FOI application form. He added that if information was required of a private body, an application should be sent to the government body which was responsible to regulate the private institution or utility. “The law can do much good only if more people realise its potential and use it for the benefit of our society,” Gardezi finished his presentation on this positive note.