The freedom of information legislation is the rule that guarantees access to data held by the state. It establishes a “right-to-know” legal process by which requests may be made for government-held information, to be received free or at a minimal cost, barring standard exceptions. The effective functioning of democracy depends on the participation in public life of citizenry that is well informed. Throughout the world, the freedoms of information laws are changing the character of democratic governance.
Pakistan promulgated the 2002 Freedom of Information Ordinance on a federal level. The law allows any citizen access to public records held by a public body of the federal government including ministries, departments, boards, councils, courts and tribunals. The bodies must respond within 21 days. Sindh also has a similar Freedom of Information Act entitled “The Sindh Freedom of Information Bill, 2006.”
The Sindh bill is aimed at improving access to public records. Yet the law has made no attempt to recognize the right of every citizen to records and information pertaining to the affairs to the government. The very premise of the law is questionable when the architects of the bill do not acknowledge freedom of information as a fundamental right. Hence, the framework of the law does not require the government to free its records from secrecy nor does it encourage openness. Furthermore, its scope has been restricted to public offices, which are under the control and supervision of the provincial government and it does not apply to autonomous and local bodies.
The definition of public bodies in the bill restricts itself for the most part to the provincial government and bodies under its control. This definition should be expanded to include the local government and autonomous bodies.
The definition of a “record” in the bill is ambiguous and limited in scope. The “record” should contain information of whatever nature in possession of a public body, including any order, proceeding, opinion, advice, decision, documents, file, noting, minutes, reports, resolutions, manuals etc, as this information is vital to examine the performance and functioning of the public body.
In section 6, it has been stated that to provide the requested information in a reasonable time and availability of resources, all the records should be computerized and connected through a network all over the country, but no such system exists. .
The bill categorizes information which has been declared public, and that which has not been. The sections 7 and 8 have failed to define precise minimal limits on the government discretion to keep information secret. The section 7 deals with the category of information that has been made available to the public as of right. The section endeavors to define the record that has been declared public and hence available upon the request of an individual. However, the list of documents provided for is limited and does not ensure that all government dealings are open to scrutiny by the public.
The category of records does not include noting, summaries, minutes and correspondence which should be available to the public in order to determine how and why decisions were made. This section does not consider information pertaining to appointments, promotions, disciplinary actions of personal employed by the government as public information nor does it cater to information to which members of the public may have a legitimate interest. The exemptions given to records of private documents furnished or a public office on the express and employed condition that it shall not be disclosed also creates room for mischief by declaring the document private and restricted to third parties.
The section 8 is the most important part of the bill as it provides for the category of information that is not required to be made accessible to the public. This section required the government to restrict access to all records categorized there under. The language of the section mandatory which means that the government cannot under any circumstances release the information categorized under the section. This section have allowed the government to protect almost all records maintained by it, by labeling such record as “classified”, without describing the guidelines or standards on the bureaucratic mind to decide whether information has been classified, because it will cause some foreseeable harm or simply because it was deemed necessary for reasons which in themselves have been classified.
According to section 10, public bodies should designate and notify an officer of employee to ensure easy public access to information and in case no official has been designated the in charge of public body shall be the designated official and should be notify, but in all public bodies of Sindh there is no such notification for such officials.
The bill provides recourse to the ombudsman in case of non-provision of the requested information within the designated time period. But bill failed to provide the time period of decision of ombudsman.
The section 8 contains a list of records that shall not be considered to be public record, whereas sections 15 to18 provides certain types of information to be exempted from the operation of the bill. In section 15, information regarding international relations, which can cause significant damage, in section 16 information which can harm any investigation, inquiry or any legal action, in section 17 information which involve the privacy of an individual and in section 18 any information which damage to the economy, is exempted to provide to public, but there is no criteria and standard, which descried that which information is damage to economy or can harm any ones privacy. The sections give complete authority to bureaucrats to use these clauses to restrict the accesses to information of public.
This merely constructs an additional wall of secrecy behind which government officials can hide. No obvious rationale can be discerned behind the provision of section 8 to exclude nothing on files, minutes of the meetings or interim orders to the type of information exempted under the ordinance
Subject to the provisions of section 8, the following record of all public bodies hereby declared to be the public record:
1. Notes on the files, minutes of the meetings and instructions, policies and guidelines of the public bodies.
2. All actions and decisions taken by public bodies relating to members of the public.
3. Transactions involving acquisition and disposal of property and expenditure undertaken by a public body in the performance of its duties.
4. Information regarding grant of licenses, approvals, consents, allotments and other benefits and privileges and contracts and agreements made by a public body.
5. Information relating to appointments promotions, disciplinary actions etc. of personnel employed by a public body.
6. Correspondence, summaries and notes relating to any of the above matters.
7. Any information required to be furnished by a person or any public body under any law or furnished for the purpose of receiving any benefit or advantage.
8. Any information of whatsoever, nature in possession of a public body to which members of the public may have a legitimate interest.
The writer is an editor at APNS in Karachi.