Balochistan Assembly recently passed the Right to Information Act, but implementation of the law leaves much to be desired due to the bureaucratic hurdles in its way. It appears that the government in Balochistan is not ready to provide information to the public and media.
The same act was passed at the federal level and is being implemented well in Islamabad as well as in Sindh. Questions about various public interest issues are asked, replied and the public is able to access information as per the law. In Balochistan, however, the law remains unimplemented.
Balochistan-based senior journalist Behram Baloch is of the opinion that there must be ‘commission and rules of business’ defining the areas of information in every ministry, institution and organisation in the province — to ensure access of information through the law.
Lack of will main reason for non-implementation
“Prior to the RTI Act, we had the 2005 Freedom of Information Act in the province, but it was not comprehensive and did not fully facilitate the process of accessing information,” he says.
Behram recalls how a provincial lawmaker once told him that the RTI law, if passed, would become a ‘blackmail tool’ for journalists.
Article 19A of the constitution of Pakistan guarantees the public’s right to access to information in the following words, “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.’’
After the 18th amendment to the constitution, provinces in Pakistan were empowered to make their own RTI laws. The right to access to information falls under the Sustainable Development Goals number 16 of the United Nations that makes the member states bound to get to the status till 2030.
Balochistan’s Freedom of Information Act 2005 was poorly-drafted and mentioned no timeframe for the provision of information. Applicants could not file appeals against denials of information either.
After pressure from the civill society whose members had been demanding introduction of the RTI law in the province, the act was finally introduced. But the provincial authorities do not seem willing to share information.
Balochistan’s Right to Information Act 2021 had been passed by the Balochistan Assembly on February 15 and was subsequently signed by the Balochistan governor. “But this law has still not been implemented. Rules of business, commission information are yet to be formed and information officers yet to be appointed in various departments who would provide information to the applicants”, Behram says.
Violence affects journalist’s work in Balochistan
Pakistan’s south western province, Balochistan, is one of the most dangerous places for journalists. Journalists are reporting under constant threat to their lives and also face job insecurity. At the same time, they are also deprived of their right to access to information which makes their reporting work all the more difficult.
In February this year, journalist Shaid Zehri was attacked through a bomb blast, in Hub, Balochistan’s industrial town which connects the province with Karachi.
Balochistan Union of Journalist President Salman Ashraf demands that the government should remove hurdles in implementation of the RTI Act in order to protect freedom of expression and facilitate access to information.
“Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ) along with other journalists bodies has been struggling on a larger scale, for freedom of information under a 19 points agenda, at a time when censorship is rampant,” he says.
He adds that many journalists in the province never filed an RTI application, as most of them don’t have enough knowledge and awareness about the right to information act and how it is used. Journalists of Balochistan need proper RTI awareness sessions and training, he says.