A guardian of democracy | Pakistan Today

A guardian of democracy

  • RTI enhances the accountability of elected representatives

By: Hafiz Mohammad Azeem

“Democracy dies behind the closed doors”, said an American judge Damon Keith in the famous Detroit Free Press case. It is a guardian right of democracy in Pakistan. However, before discussing it; it is pertinent to define it. The right to information (RTI) has been defined and adopted up till now by almost above 100 countries as per their norms, legal, and socio-economic mores, and so on. It also has successfully been recognized in each international instrument that deals with fundamental human rights.

In Pakistan, the RTI has been bestowed the constitutional status of a fundamental right in the 18th Amendment. Under its Article 19A, it has been defined as the “right of every citizen to have access to information in all matters of public importance”. Afterward, all four provinces of Pakistan adopted it. In Punjab, through the legislation of ‘The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2010’, it is comparatively defined better than the rest of the provinces: a right to acquire information, including the inspection of documents and works, to extract and to access on a certified copies of requisite documents and materials, and so on in all matters of public importance.

Furthermore, through the adoption and legislation of the ‘Right of Access to Information Act, 2017’, the federal government also adopted and defined it, while reiterating its belief in transparency and its aim of improved access of information to the records controlled by public functionaries. Furthermore, to promote the principle of accountability before its citizens; to accept the principle of participatory democracy; to eradicate the menace of corruption; to improve the performance of government; to strengthen socio-economic growth; to boost the good governance and to honour human rights, it adopted the ‘Right of Access to Information Act, 2017’. In this legislation, RTI is defined as the right of access to information controlled by public functionaries or agencies, including information of documents or records which may either be digital or printed in nature, in all matters of public importance.

The Right To Information is the sine qua non for a true democracy. It controls corruption and malpractices by giving access to information in all matters of public importance to every citizen. Being a part of freedom of expression; it strengthens the fourth pillar of the state: the media

Why is it a guardian of democracy? Because James Madison once said, “a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to farce or tragedy”. Those countries which have adopted it in its true letter and spirit are successful democracies. Yet those who have snubbed it and do not adopt it by those means; there the rule of law and accountability is still a chimera. For example, the USA adopted it in 1966 through the Freedom of Information Act. Sweden adopted it in 1949, Australia adopted it in 1987, and Canada in 1983. There is a list of successful democracies that adopted it first and a list of failed democracies that have not.

On the other hand, Pakistan adopted it officially— with a heavy heart as a cumbersome duty to be obliged, and which was imposed by international institutions and pressure— in 2010. Yet not in its letter and spirit. In this regard, up till 2010 a series of successive procrastinating promises were made by each ruler who came to the helm of affairs. As a false claim, often the notion of security or sometimes national security has been put forth as an impediment in its implementation— it requires another long debate that whether RTI hinders national security or not. But its late and still hypocritical adoption, cut adrift our citizens from its usage and benefits. Thus, the depth of corruption’s ocean is consistently increasing; the impermeable culture of secrecy is gaining strength; the lack of openness and transparency is resulting in huge losses to the exchequer.

It is a guardian of democracy because it ensures political accountability and true representation. For the first aspect, ‘accountability’: it is crystal clear that each democratic state emphasized this notion. Thus, where there is a democracy, there is the right to information. These two co-exist. Neither can survive without the other. The second apect comes as a consequence of the first. The accountability of whom? Elected representatives. This representation stems from the relationship of electors with those that are elected. And when these electors do not pursue their representative’s promises and slogans, there comes RTI to let it be known to the citizens what their chosen representatives are doing.

It is also a guardian of democracy because it compels the elites and the rulers to answer before laymen and the downtrodden. This is obviously a disliked situation by them. Elites and bureaucrats have to think of people whom they consider nothing; whose simple application can place them in the dock before the law. This answering aspect is democracy. As it is a two-way promise: one promise by the voters that they will vote, the second by the representatives that they will abide by the promises made with voters. Thus, the right to information guards and protects democracy.

Moreover, it is also a guardian of democracy because it protects the citizens from the unbridled, whimsical, arbitrary and fanciful powers of the rulers through accountability. It is not that constitutional status of being Article 19A gives it guardianship title. Rather, its unimpeachable relationship with democracy makes it worthy of this entitlement. This is because RTI finds its place straightforwardly in discussions of democracy and its principles, such as participation and accountability. And as a guardian of democracy, it not only tackles the corruption but also helps to evaluate the public response; as elections are not the only means of democracy, rather the right to know after the formulation of government is real democracy.

In a nutshell, it is the sine qua non for a true democracy. It controls corruption and malpractices by giving access to information in all matters of public importance to every citizen. Being a part of freedom of expression; it strengthens the fourth pillar of the state: the media. The right to information comes as a saviour for the downtrodden from whimsical, capricious, mischievous shenanigans of the rulers and elites by compelling the government to disclose all those matters that deal with the masses. It advances the transparency and deprecates the secrecy. In other words, it makes democracy flourish.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]. His articles can be accessed on hmazeem.blospot.com.