Saleem Shahid

Being a member of the U.N. and other international organizations, Pakistan is bound to respect and implement the Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights those seek implementation and protection of fundamental rights of citizens of freedom and expression and access to information.

For 33 out of its 66 years of existence, Pakistan remained under the military rule. There was no concept of freedom of expression and right of access to information as martial law administrators did not allow anyone to speak out against their governments while they used to keep the government matters shrouded in secrecy in keeping with their military training where official affairs are to be treated as well-kept secrets.

For the remainder of the period, various political parties formed their democratic governments but they did not make any serious effort to ensure the right to information as they remained under influence of civil and military bureaucracy.

It is noted here that many political parties were founded by martial law administrators and even many politicians who served in key positions, including presidents, prime ministers, governors and chief minister were the creatures of the martial law regimes.

However, some attention was paid to the laws pertaining to the freedom of expression and right to information during last 10 years when the federal as well as provincial governments enacted legislation in the assemblies for access to information.

In Balochistan, the Freedom of Information Act was enforced in 2005 that was also made part of the Local Government Act. After the passage of the 18th Amendment, the local bodies system was devolved to provinces and the provinces amended the 2001 Local Government Ordinance.

Balochistan was the province that legislated more on local bodies system in 2010 and the provincial assembly passed new local government laws compared to other provinces, including Punjab and Khyber Pakhtoonkhawa, which did not follow Balochistan in this regard.

In June 2013, a coalition government of Baloch and Pashtun nationalists and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, a mainstream political party, assumed charge of office. Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, the National Party leader, headed the coalition government.

In order to amend the 2010 Balochistan Local Government Act, it was presented in the Balochistan Assembly In August 2013. On behalf of chief minister, Nawab Muhammad Khan Shahwani, a provincial minister, presented the draft bill in the legislature.

The provincial assembly amended the local bodies’ laws unanimously and the 2013 Balochistan Local Government Act (Amended) came into effect on September 5, 2013, after the Balochistan governor, Muhammad Khan Achakzai, gave it his assent. The right to information law is part of this act and it enables every citizen to get the requisite information from the head of any government department after submitting his or her request in this regard.

The act provides for transparency and freedom of information to ensure that the citizens of Balochistan have improved access to public records and for the purpose of making the government more accountable to its citizens. It further says that the access to information is not to be denied. “Subject to the Provisions of this Act, requester shall not be denied access to any official record other than exemptions as provided in the law,” it states.

It says that the acts and subordinate legislation such as rules and regulations, notification, by-laws, manuals, orders having the force of law in Balochistan shall be duly published and made available at a reasonable price and at adequate number of outlets so that the access is easy and inexpensive. It, however, provided that the prohibited maps, diagrams, photography, film microfilm and secret or confidential records do not come within the meaning of record.

Subject to the provision of this act, and the rules made under it, the government, the designated official shall provide the information contained in any public record or as the case may be. Giving the procedure of application for obtaining information, it is said, “Subject to subsection (2), any citizen of Pakistan whose interest has been affected may make an application to the designated official in form as may be prescribed and shall with this application, furnish necessary particulars, pay such fee and at such time as may be prescribed and designated official shall within twenty-one days of the receiving of request, supply to the applicant the required information or as the case may be a copy of any public record.”

Although laws to ensure the right to information are enforced in Balochistan, but the reality is that most people, including journalists were unaware in this regard as the former and present governments intentionally or unintentionally did not publicize this fact. The NGOs had also not played their role in introducing the right to the information law in Balochistan.

“The right to information law has already been enforced in Balochistan and the government is providing information to the media and other people on their request in accordance with the relevant law,” says the provincial law secretary, Safdar Hussain. “The heads of various government departments are fully aware about the law’s implementation in the province.”

It has also been observed in Balochistan that most of the people who have good knowledge about the right to information law never adopt the legal way to get required information and documents. They get required documents and information through the illegal way in support of their cases in the courts. “Some people present very important classified information and secret documents which cannot be provided under the right to information law,” says Ayaz Khan, a senior high court lawyer. “The courts can take legal action against them for having such important and secret documents and information.”

You can observe that how much interest and knowledge, the special correspondents of leading media organizations and other journalists have in the Freedom of Information Act as they released the news stories on the passage of the 2013 Balochistan Local Government (Amended) Act (that also included the Freedom of Information Act) in private news TV channels and newspapers, but they did not mention the fact that the Freedom of Information law was also part of the Balochistan Local Government (Amended) Act.

It is worth mentioning here that in Balochistan many journalists have been booked under the Anti-Terrorist Act for publishing “specific news stories”. It is a regrettable development. Now, it is imperative for the coalition government to take practical measures to put an end to this practice and launch awareness campaign about the Freedom of Information Act besides appointing officials who would provide required information to the requesters.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Quetta.