On October 23, 2014, Shehri, a civil society organization, held an inaugural workshop of the Coalition for Transparency and Access to Information (C-TAI) to discuss Freedom of Information laws and the legal processes to obtain information from public bodies in Pakistan. The coalition currently consists of 22 civil society organizations – including Bolo Bhi – that are committed to promoting greater transparency within public bodies and ensuring that the constitutional right of access to information for citizens is upheld.
Pakistan’s federal law was introduced in 2002 called the Freedom of Information Ordinance. The provincial laws, of Sindh and Balochistan, followed considerably later in 2005 and 2006. In 2013 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab also drafted their own versions of the RTI laws – both significantly better than previous or existing versions. All the laws, their merits and demerits were discussed in detail.
Pakistan is one of the 100 countries to have enacted an RTI law (Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002); however, out of these 100 countries, it is ranked at number 74 in terms of efficiency and practical output of the law. Discussing the federal law, participants shared their experiences and pointed to bureaucratic hurdles, lengthy waiting times and the need to constantly badger authorities to get a response. Even then, responses were either partial, or wholly unsatisfactory, with public bodies contending the requested information was classified. To Shehri’s enquiry regarding parking tickets the relevant agency responded: ‘this cannot be disclosed as it falls under national security.’ In other instances, officials at the federal ombudsman’s office were found unaware of existence of the freedom of information law.
Extravagant claims state that up to 40,000 RTI requests were filed in Pakistan last year. Neighbouring India stands at a massive 4,000,000 for the same duration. The workshop also included a session on drafting RTI requests which were scrutinized and discussed. In going forward, all members of the coalition were urged to file more and more RTI applications and, based on the experiences, suggestions would be made to policymakers recommending changes in the law.