Monday, February 10, 2014
State of Freedom of Information in Pakistan and digital database management
The discussion on Freedom of Information Act in the US in the class led me to taking a closer look at the state of freedom of Information in my country, Pakistan. In case of Pakistan, according to article 19 of the Constitution:
"Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission or incitement to an offence."
However, the story pretty much ends here. Fancy words require action to make them substantial. Although Pakistan was the first country in South Asia to promulgate the FOI Ordinance in 1997, it was a poorly drafted, flawed and ineffective law. The second version of FOI was issued in 2002 by the then President, General Pervaiz Musharraf. Till date, it has not been converted into an act and required legislation is underway. The term 'right to information' is undefined, the list of excluded records and information exempted from disclosure is long (Sections 8 and 14-18) and the controls are tight. It is necessary for requesters to give reasons for requesting information along with their contact information. Appeal can be made to the head of the public body if designated officer fails to provide the requested information and a second appeal to Federal Ombudsman can be made, which interestingly enough, is only recommendatory and not binding. There is no penalty for officers who delay, deny or provide incorrect information malafidely. Instead, a complainant can be fined up to Rs. 10,000 if his/her complaint is found to be "malicious, frivolous or vexatious". (I like the use of term 'frivolous' here). Several important provisions are missing.
Not only there appears to be a lack of willingness on the part of federal Government, but also lack of capacity to collect, organize, digitize and publish data, let alone encouraging citizen participation in development initiatives. In the last couple of years, active movements from the civil society have pushed provincial governments to promulgate FOI laws. They have been engaging political parties urging them in to include RTI in their party manifestos.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab government have fortunately formulated RTI legislation. KP Right to information Ordinance, passed in May 2013, has been widely appleciated. Toby Mendel, Executive Director, Center for Law and Democracy (http://www.law-democracy.org) termed KP RTI law as better than the 95 national laws that CLD had studied. Soon after, Punjab also promulgated "Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013, which, however, is also known as a 'confused act' by many.
It is a very dismal situation in terms of RTI in Pakistan. It is often suggested that lessons should be taken from Indian FOI Act of 2005 since both countries share similar history and have sprung out of colonial mindset of governance. It is easy to follow the model but we want to stay enemies forever. The problem with Pakistan is that the common man is not aware of his/her rights. The public is too busy trying to earn a livelihood and making ends meet that they do not bother about what government is and is not telling them. Also they are uneducated and terrorism stricken. Its the media, social activists and civil society which make a living out of pointing out such flaws.
One initiative that I found online is by a Pakistani Fulbrighter who, through his website, is trying to educate the general public about its right to information and the methods of attaining it in detail. It is called the Freedom of Information Pakistan Network. (http://www.foiapakistan.com/right-to-information.html).
When it comes to information management, Pakistan has an excellent National Database Registration System (NADRA). It has shown tremendous growth in the past thirteen years in terms of citizen identification through bio-metrics, e-governance and data warehousing. I was fascinated to see the use of technology at NADRA in terms of e-governance and data collection at its website (http://www.nadra.gov.pk/index.php/solutions). I would encourage readers to take a look. However, I could not see any initiatives for dissemination of information, nor any such directions by the government under the FOIA. It appears that the necessary infrastructure is present for initiatives like data.gov. I am hoping it will grow in the future.