For any society to flourish, it is imperative that its people are given the right to hold their rulers accountable. In practical and simple terms, this means there are no restrictions on the kind of questions citizens ask from their government. It has been said time and again that without the free flow of speech and information, a state cannot realistically solve its problems. The argument for the free flow of information is a rational one. Free and transparent information brings out the truth for all to know. Obstruction of information can lead to abuse of power and squashing of citizens’ rights.
While the post 2013 elections period has been promising for the right to access to information movement in Pakistan. Soon after the elections, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Punjab led the way by passing internationally acclaimed Right to Information (RTI) laws and setting up information commissions. However, there is a need to empower people to stand up for themselves and demand these laws for themselves. Keeping this in view, Transparency International Pakistan is doing all it can to impact the discourse and dialogue in Pakistan regarding these laws. We have been working with the relevant stakeholders especially youth, women and the general public to equip them with relevant skills and knowledge on how they could hold government accountable using the RTI laws.
Moreover, for any legislation to be effective enough, it is fundamental that people are aware and empowered enough to take advantage of it. Though, in Pakistan, in recent years, there has been much emphasis on legislation but the need to ensure greater outreach of these laws is highly under shadowed. To fill this void, TI Pakistan under its flagship program namely Citizens Voice Against Corruption (CVAC) had envisioned a training program on Right to Information to raise awareness amongst citizens of the basic rules of writing complaints and enable them to write applications to the concerned authority. To date, there have been multiple training sessions conducted across Pakistan (rural and urban areas). As a result of which, TI Pakistan has successfully empowered thousands of citizens to ask questions from their government, bringing much-needed transparency in the otherwise opaque functioning of the government in the country.
It is also encouraging to see the impact of these trainings. One such success story is a case of Mr. Sher Khan who attended TI Pakistan’s recent Right to Information (RTI) workshop in Burewala, Punjab. After the workshop, he was well informed about the RTI laws and procedures to file RTI requests. He filed three RTI requests: One to the Provincial Highway department asking them for the budget of Kachi Paki Road and two RTI requests to the Town Municipal Administration, Burewala for the Town Budget 2015-16 and budget of Tehsil Headquarter Hospital of the last three years. After the struggle of two months, Sher Khan was able to receive information from the concerned departments.
This highlights the fact that for many, particularly for the poor and disadvantaged in Pakistan, the simple act of filing an RTI is an act of empowering themselves. There are many others like Sher Khan who have benefited from TI Pakistan’s RTI workshops enabling themselves to keep a check on government policies and decisions and expose misuse of public funds. In addition, a study conducted by Yale University reveals that “Access to information appears to empower the poor to the point where they receive almost the same treatment as middle-class individuals at the hands of civil servants. This is something that payment of a bribe cannot do.”
However, all this is conditioned upon the rigorous implementation of RTI laws. Only when these laws are adopted in both spirit and letter will Pakistan be able to overcome its problems of bad governance and the menace of corruption in the country.