In August, the Balochistan cabinet approved the draft of the Right of Access to Information Act. This marked a huge leap in the efforts by civil society to introduce a workable law for the Right to Information (RTI) in the restive province of Balochistan. Yet, to the dismay of the people lobbying to pass this bill, the government has not made public the contents of the draft passed by the cabinet. This has once again underscored the attitude of the Balochistan government which is averse to transparency.
Currently, the province only has the Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 relating to the access of information. This law was enacted 15 years ago and is obsolete for the purpose of acquiring information relevant to the public interest. It was never meant to provide a workable mechanism for public information sharing but was only passed to fulfill international obligations relating to the Right to Information.
Since 2015, awareness and the need to have robust Right to Information mechanisms increased. Laws were passed in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa relating to the right to information. In this backdrop, civil society in Balochistan along with journalists started a campaign to introduce a new and workable Right to Information law in Balochistan as well. This campaign culminated in the government of Balochistan approving the draft of this proposed bill in the cabinet. The bill is yet to be presented in Balochistan Assembly.
Read also: Ineffective RTI Law of Balochistan
Apparently, the Balochistan government has passed the proposed draft of the Right to Information Bill without sharing the draft with civil society for consultation. The public has no idea what are the contents of the proposed draft are and it is likely that it contains some provisions which will make the enactment of this act, once it is passed, very difficult. It is believed that this is the reason why the government is not making the draft public; to avoid pressure from civil society.
This Right to Information draft is not a one-off example but a reflection of the overall attitude of the provincial government which does not believe in transparency of information relating to the public interest. This problem is not limited to Chief Minister Jam Kamal’s government. It is entrenched in the working of the provincial bureaucracy and all governments follow the same path. However, the current government is guilty of the fact that it has not made any effort to move away from this anti-transparency attitude.
In this age of information, governments all over the world use websites to share information with the public. However, the website – like the transparency-averse approach of the government – never shares timely and comprehensive information. In the absence of proper websites, the only way to get information in Balochistan for journalists, researchers, and civil society is to physically visit offices. This entire practice is nothing less than a nightmare for someone who is just on the lookout for basic information.
First, there is no clarity about which official in a department is to be approached for getting the required information. When that is sorted out, then one has to get an appointment to meet the official, and once that bridge is crossed, then one faces the uncooperative approach of officials if they do not know the person well. As a result, people just stop using this route to get information, and problems of the province go unreported.
The transparency-averse approach of the Balochistan government is not necessarily due to the fact that they want to hide information. It is largely due to incompetence and lack of interest in the provincial government officials. Most of the government functionaries are not aware of the importance of sharing information for a functional democracy. Therefore, they do not spare their time and energy for this purpose. There is no accountability mechanism for government officials to share information, which needs to be done through an effective Right to Information legislation. Making information public is nowhere on the agenda of the government and its various branches.
Individualland Pakistan (IL), with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), conducted a consultation session on the 21st of October, in Quetta. Governor Balochistan, Provincial Finance Minister, and MPAs attended the event and vowed to consult with civil society organizations before passing the RTI bill.
In the interests of the people of Balochistan, the government must live up to its commitment made in the consultation organized by Individualland. Government officials must understand that transparency is the bedrock of democracy. Information sharing is inevitable for an effective accountability mechanism that makes a functional system running. If the government refuses to take this path then it has to deal with the wrath of the civil society, which is the last thing this government can afford.
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