Strengthening democracy through access to information

The recent introduction of Rule 46 in the Punjab Government Rules of Business 2011 disallows all government employees in Punjab to speak about official business to media, non-officials, or to officials belonging to other government offices, thus curtailing access to information.  The addendums to the new law set certain restrictions on the interaction of government officials with the aforementioned persons unless they have been officially empowered to do so.

Department officials are not permitted to discuss any matter of the home, police, health, irrigation, revenue and other departments that fall under the Service and General Administration Department of the Punjab government. This law, in short, is an obstacle to democratic rule. Citizens have a right to information, and in order for the public to monitor the government’s work it is important that there be transparency.

The media also feels that it is being barred from access to information, which in turn, limits its role as a government “watchdog.” The media is a tool through which the people are able to monitor the acts of the government, and a free media acts as a voice for the people in democratic countries. Journalists in Punjab fear that in light of the new rule, they will not be able to gain any insight into the work of the government and therefore, will not be able to monitor or hold the government accountable. A district reporter from Khanewal Hussain Shah said, “I spent my entire morning shuffling back and forth between government offices trying to get a quote but there was nothing. Does the government really think that people will stop criticizing them if they try to shut us up like this?”[1] The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has also condemned the new rule. PFUJ has declared that this rule belies the Punjab government’s claim that it is a proponent of freedom of expression and speech. Denying the media access to information, in turn denies citizens the right to information by their democratically elected government.

According to certain constitutional experts, this law also comes into collision with Article 19 of the 1973 Constitution in which it clearly states that

“Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable retractions imposed by law in the interest of glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, a decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission or incitement to an offence.”

Article 19a of the 18th Amendment went on to state that, Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.”

For some legal scholars, Rule 46 is also in violation of the Freedom of Information Ordinance of 2002. This ordinance makes it necessary for everyone to be given access to public records in order for the government to be held responsible and accountable to the people.

There are other bills that have been introduced in Parliament on improving, narrowing and amending the existing laws on freedom of information. However, these have not been made legislation, and despite the vagueness of the existing constitutional decrees on the matter, the constitutionality of Rule 46 is questionable. It is increasingly important to introduce improvements to the existing laws that do not allow the government to deny to the right of information by claiming to be safeguarding and protecting it as is being done by the Punjab government.