Two weeks ago, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), a political think-tank with its head office in Lahore, was conducting the final session of its workshops on the Punjab Right to Information (RTI) Law in Bahawalpur with the support of USAID Small Grants and Ambassador’s Fund Program (USAID-SGAFP), when we were subjected to a very rude interruption. In the middle of the very informative session to an audience which consisted mostly of women and minorities, men claiming to have the authority burst in and commanded everyone to leave the room and end the conference – or face the consequences.
Let me set the stage to a situation that perhaps many project managers of any funded organisation would recognise. We were a group of hopeful journalists from Lahore, intending to learn more about the RTI law and its awareness among the local politicians and media of Bahawalpur. Our project manager, Anisa Dar, was pacing back and forth relentlessly, to ensure the conference would sail smoothly. The first speaker, Professor Kalim Ullah, Ex-information commissioner KPK, stressed to the audience of Bahawalpur locals the basic meaning of the Act, and why being citizens of a democracy entitled us to this information. The second speaker, Ahmad Raza Tariq, a former PIO, delineated more about the procedure and how to go about registering a request for information. Mr. Tariq was rounding up, and we were summarising our notes for the next day, where the closing ceremony would conclude a series of conferences training local politicians and journalists to channel the law among their districts. Mr. Tariq had not yet finished his Q & A session, when unidentified men entered the room and called for the conference to end, and everyone to move out. Under the threat of penal consequences, we cleared out, only to be welcomed with the news that the closing ceremony tomorrow would not take place, due to the formidable and looming security threat of....the USAID flag on PILDAT’s posters.
Could there be anything more unfortunately ironic than a situation where a conference advocating right to access of information is forcefully shut down without being given a specific reason? Where the public authorities echoed the excuse of no NOC obtained, despite consent being previously asked and accepted from the District Commissioner, there were also justifications given of ‘South Punjab is a sensitive area’ and the US flag being present on a poster. The takeaway lesson is this- there was no security or comfort for rights programs, especially foreign funded ones- even if the programs only included basic details of a law that was passed by the Provincial assembly.
Perhaps, in a way, PILDAT should have seen it coming. Since last year, foreign funded programs have had to function with risk; in December; Pakistan ordered 27 international aid groups to shut down for working in unauthorised areas. The issue of foreign funding and its application is a separate debate; this is not the place to point fingers at bureaucratic red tape or more sinister involvement. The way I see it, at the end of the day, a program which simply highlighted the basics of an ignored but crucial law was shut down, depriving many of the information they had the right to receive.
And such crucial information it was! It is a tragedy that most reading this article would not, in most probability, be aware of how much power citizens have been equipped with through this law. The Right to Information Laws in Pakistan sought to grant one of the basic rights guaranteed in our constitution-the access to information, and aimed to remedy the biggest problem, perhaps the core of all problems we face today, that of an ignorance and obliviousness of the system that governs us.
It is an oft echoed lamentation of democracy- that the vote of the people isn’t the most efficient system when the people don’t know what the system is. Survey any upper-middle class group of people and they’ll tell you-the problem is that people do not know their rights, and thus, don’t demand them. Ignorance isn’t bliss when the knowledge you lack is integral to your basic needs; to your roti, kapra and makaan.
Lack of knowledge of the integral policies governing us is an epidemic that every class of Pakistan suffers from, not just the illiterate and lower-income groups, although this ignorance hits them the hardest. An on the surface browsing of opinion of the general public will reveal that our political acumen mostly revolves around basic and spicy petty politics- there will be a baffling lack of knowledge about the actual economic policies governing us, which impacts our everyday lives. Right to Information is a constitutionally guaranteed right under Article 19 (A), yet our citizens do not know the budget for education allocated to their district or the reason for no action on long pending re-construction of a broken bridge near their area. What’s unfortunate is that we do not know that we have the right to know.
The Punjab Right to Information (RTI) Act 2013 sought to remedy this situation. An offshoot of the Federal 2002 law, and inspired by the hugely successful Indian 2005 RTI law, the Punjab Act provides, on paper, an easy procedure by which the public can demand that PIOs (Public Information Officers) release the information they require.
The laughingly bitter irony of why the RTI law isn’t making waves as it is in India, where “arti laga don ga” has become a wonderful threat against government inaction, is that there is a lack of information revolving around the information law. Most people don’t know about the law, and those who do, don’t know the huge scope of information they can access- anything which is public, and does not revolve around defence or national security, is your right to know. That includes the exact selection criteria of any public official who you feel might have bagged the position through nepotism; and access to government teachers’ absence records so you can assess if standards of education are being met. RTI gives you the right to demand and receive information about the salaries of all public officials, be they MNAs, the President or the Chief Justice.
Such a powerful law should be the best friend of the media, the upholders of access to information. It was puzzling to me why RTI wasn’t being embraced by our journalist community, which is often in the pursuit of information. I attended the conference with the exact aim to find out why we weren’t utilising this law, especially in election year, to bring into light the necessary information our citizens need to make informed educated votes. Perhaps, the forced cancellation of the event was my answer.
Not all hope is lost for RTI yet. PILDAT, with support from USAID-SGAFP, has decided to take another chance at organising its closing ceremony for the RTI project, this time in a less sensitive area, Lahore on the 12th of April. Journalists and local activists would do well to enrich themselves on the inner working of the law, and demand why this law is not being made easier for everyone. If the event gets cancelled again, at least we can have a bittersweet laugh on the irony of not being able to access an event emphasising the importance of access of information.
The writer is a final year Law student at LUMS and an editorial writer at The Nation.