In the absence of a specific law to ensure access to information in Pakistan, the long pending Right to Information Bill is seen by many as a much-needed step to ensure transparency.
However, scrutiny of the draft of the proposed legislation, a copy of which is available with The Express Tribune, reveals that it would be no more than a small step towards making government documents and records public. In its present form, the bill hardly allows access to any tangible information, save for official notifications and reports issued by government departments, autonomous bodies and corporations.
The proposed mechanism
Still being opposed by certain quarters, if passed, the proposed legislation stipulates that every ministry/division, department or attached department of the federal government should appoint a focal person to provide the information sought by a requester. Under the law, these designated officials would be bound to provide the information or a reply within 21 days.
In case an official denies the requester access to the information, he or she would be required to give reasons for doing so in writing to the former. The requester can then approach a court against the official’s decision.
If a department chooses not to appoint a specific official for the task, the secretary of the ministry, would act as the designated officer to provide public access to information. In case of autonomous or other government bodies, the head or chief executive would be legally bound to respond to such queries.
The requesters would be required to pay a specific fee which will be determined once rules are framed after the bill has been passed by parliament.
The bill also stipulates that all official documents become part of public records after 20 years. ‘Out of bounds’
The bill mentions a long list of areas which will remain out of the public domain. Besides documents related to defence and ‘national security’ matters, the records of banking companies, Council of Common Interest, National Economic Council and related committees, and even cabinet meetings will not be made public. Similarly, all internal working documents of a public body, including proposals for Cabinet decisions and management of the national economy will remain classified under the proposed legislation until a final decision has been taken and notified by the public body.
Other areas that are supposed to remain out of bound for citizens include matters pertaining to law enforcement and public safety, investigative reports undertaken by agencies for the prevention and detection of crime, information obtained or received in the course of any investigation, information about the existence or non-existence or identity of a confidential source in relation to the enforcement of any law and records regarding the collection and assessment of taxes.
Any information the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person, prejudice the fair trial of a person or the impartial adjudication of a particular case before any court or tribunal, or violate any intellectual property rights will also be kept out of the public domain, as will any information pertaining to scientific or technical research the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to expose the organisation concerned or project to a disadvantage.
Predictably, information regarding defence planning, deployment of forces, defence installations, and matters related to national security will be exempt from the right to information.
While it is understandable that some of the aforementioned matters will be exempt from disclosures, the list of exemptions does not end there. It mentions several more ambiguous and wide-ranging areas which any designated official can use as an excuse to deny citizens access to information.
Another ‘exemption list’, given in clauses 14-18 of the RTI bill, includes matters relating to international relations, economic affairs and privacy.
The proposed legislation says that information may be exempt if its disclosure would be likely to cause grave and significant damage to the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations, is likely to result in the commission of an offence, harm the detection, prevention or investigation in a particular case, facilitate an escape from legal custody or harm the security of any property or system (including a building, a vehicle, a computer system or a communication system). Information is also exempt if its disclosure involves the invasion of privacy of an individual (either living or deceased) other than the requester.
With regards to economic affairs, information that is likely to cause grave and significant damage to the economy as a result of the premature disclosure of the proposed introduction, abolition or variation of any tax, duty, interest rate, exchange rate or any other instrument of economic management is exempt from disclosure. Similarly, information likely to damage the financial interests of a public body “by giving an unreasonable advantage to any person in relation to a contract which that person is seeking to enter into with that body for the acquisition or disposal of property or the supply of goods or services” is also exempt, the draft law says.
A brief history of the RTI bill
The first step to provide citizens access to information was taken by then president Pervez Musharraf in 2002 when he issued the Freedom to Information (FTI) Ordinance 2002. Under the country’s laws, however, an ordinance – which is issued as a presidential decree – expires after 120 days if it is not endorsed by parliament. As such, Musharraf’s ordinance lapsed after lawmakers failed to ratify it.
When the PPP-led government came to power following the 2008 elections, then information minister Sherry Rehman first tabled what would become the RTI bill before the National Assembly that same year. This draft was sent to parliamentary committees for further deliberation.
But after Rehman lost her job as information minister, the bill was placed on the backburner for another four years. Although with the 18th amendment an article (19-A) recognising access to information as a fundamental right of citizens was added to the Constitution, little was done to provide a legal framework to the right to information.
Work on the bill resumed in September 2012, when a sub-committee of the Senate standing committee on information and broadcasting sent the draft for feedback to various stakeholders, including the defence ministry. The country’s powerful security establishment is still opposing the RTI bill, however.
More recently, the sub-committee urged the new PML-N government to table the bill in parliament by the first week of next month, immediately after the ongoing budget session.
For the text of the bill please Click here.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2013.