ISLAMABAD: In an effort to discourage the government from using the pretext of national security to place unjustified restrictions on the right to information, a Senate body has resolved that any ‘corrupt practice’ or ‘human rights violations’ that involve public institutions – including those run by the security establishment – will be liable to be shared publicly.
This was decided in a meeting of the Senate Select Committee on the Right to Information Bill, 2016 which met with Farhatullah Babar in the chair on Wednesday. It discussed the Freedom of Information Act of the UK and other related laws of Bangladesh and India.
Former information minister Pervaiz Rashid, Syed Shibli Faraz, Mukhtiar Ahmad Dhamrah, Rubina Khalid, Minister of State for Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage Marriyum Aurangzeb, besides senior officials of the ministries of Information and Broadcasting, and Law and Justice attended the meeting.
Babar, while discussing the clause ‘exclusion of certain record’, said: “Information from some institutions has always been withheld in the name of national security or some other excuse.”
“I have personally experienced this. Any such information sought by parliamentarians is denied to them on the pretext of national security or national interests – hence muzzling the information,” he said. The PPP senator, while quoting the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, noted: “Governments should not block access to information on issues and incidents where there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of human rights have been committed.”
Babar said the guiding principle should be that if the relevant information causes less harm and more public good, then it should be released. “The same is being followed in the UK, India and Bangladesh,” he said, suggesting that Pakistan should follow the same principle for transparency.
Rashid suggested that a parliamentary oversight committee should be constituted to look into issues that pertain to national security. “The body would be briefed by the institution that considers the information classified, and then the fate of such information should be left at the discretion of the members of the committee.”
To this Babar replied that this could only be done if the RTI commission was made independent, empowered and authoritative, maintaining that “I’ve witnessed to pressure being exerted by invisible forces on parliamentary bodies and it would be difficult for them to withstand such pressure”.
The committee members — including the minister of state for information — agreed to insert the clause to the bill suggested by the chair that “anything that involves corruption or human rights violations should be shared by the public sector body from which the information is being sought”.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 26th, 2017.
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