ISLAMABAD: The long-pending Right of Access to Information Bill finally saw the light of day on Tuesday when the upper house of parliament adopted it unanimously.
If implemented, the bill would give people – including the media – access to public record. However, there will still be some limitations in obtaining access to the material that may be considered harmful to national security, relations with friendly countries, privacy of someone’s life, home and family records.
Once it becomes law after the National Assembly also adopts it and the president signs it into an act, a citizen would have to make a request in writing to a public body for information.
The designated official of a government organisation would be required to respond to such a request as soon as possible and that too within 10 working days of receiving the request.
This stipulated period could be extended for another 10 working days maximum in case the information sought required a search through a large chunk of records or records located in different offices or some kind of consultation is required with third parties or other public bodies.
Any information needed to protect the life and liberty of any individual would have to be provided within three working days, states another clause of the bill.
The bill also specifies the type of information that will be exempted from disclosure.
An applicant not satisfied by the decision of a designated officer of a public body from which the information was sought, could file an appeal to an information commission within 30 days.
The proposed three-member commission would have to decide the case within 60 days. The public body that fails to provide information, or provides insufficient information or fails to provide information on time, would bear the burden of proof to substantiate its action.
The commission comprising one member qualified to be a judge of a high court, one member who has been in service of Pakistan in BS-22 or equivalent, and one member from civil society having 16 years of education and experience of not less than 15 years in the field of social sciences would be appointed by prime minister for a term of four years.
Amongst these three, prime minister would appoint one as chief information commissioner. The chief information commissioner and commissioners could be removed from service in case of serious complains against them.
Such a complaint would be launched before a five-member parliamentary committee comprising two senators nominated by the Senate chairman and three members from the National Assembly to be appointed by the speaker.
Any person, who is found wilfully obstructing implementation of the act by obstructing any information or record with the view to preventing exercise of the right provided in this law, or interfering with the work of the information commission or destroyed a record without lawful authority would be punishable with a fine up to Rs50,000.
In case any person who wilfully destroys a record was the subject of any application for access to information or appeal or otherwise obstructs access to information which is subject of an application or appeal with the intention of preventing its disclosure under this law, will be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which shall not be less than Rs100,000 or with both.
Earlier during question hour, the Senate was informed that there are 3,193 civil servants working with different federal government departments whose spouses are foreign nationals.
Of those, 68 are gazetted officers while the rest are government employees in grade 1 to 16.
Govt has fulfilled its pledge: Marriyum
Minister of Information Marriyum Aurangzeb has said the PML-N government has fulfilled yet another pledge by bringing the legislation. “This bill is a consensus document which entirely covers Article 19-A of the Constitution,” she said after the Senate adopted the bill.
She observed that according to the Statement of Objects and Reasons, the bill was intended to promote two-way flow of information from the government to the people and vice versa.
“[It aims to] strengthen and safeguard the public’s right to know, especially in the backdrop of Article 19-A of the Constitution which explicitly recognized this right as a fundamental right,” she added.
Marriyum said that the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had constituted a ministerial committee following which a select committee was constituted for further consideration of the bill.
“This bill at the federal level will ensure access to information to every citizen, promote good governance and oversight of the institutions as well as transparency in matters relating to governance,” she added.