Islamabad: The Senate of Pakistan, upper house of country’s parliament, recently passed country’s first public’s right to know bill. The bill “The Right of Access to Information Bill, 2017” is scheduled to be passed by the National Assembly, very soon.

This much delayed bill follows much earlier passed provincial bills acknowledging “right to know” and “right to information”.

The bill aims “to provide for the right to information in transparent and effective manner, subject only to reasonable restrictions imposed by law whereas Federal Government believes in transparency and the right to have access to information to ensure that the people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have improved access to records held by public authorities and promote the purposes of making the Government more accountable to its people, of improving participation by the people in public affairs, of reducing corruption and inefficiency in Government, of promoting sound economic growth, of promoting good governance and respect for human rights.” The proposed law further acknowledges everyone’s fundamental right to have access to all information held by public body’s subject only to reasonable restrictions imposed by law, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” The proposed law will apply to all public bodies of the Federal Government.

After the law is enacted, any citizen will be able to get the description of the public body’s organisation and functions, duties, powers and any services it provides to the public, including a directory of its officers and employees, indicating their duties and functions and their respective remunerations, perks and privileges statutes, statutory rules, regulations, bye-laws, orders and notifications, etc.

However, the bill excludes access to a) nothing on the files, subject to a final decision by the public body; (b) minutes of meetings, subject to a final decision by the public body; (c) any intermediary opinion or recommendation, subject to a final decision by the public body; (d) Record of the banking companies and financial institutions relating to the accounts of their customers; (e) record relating to defence forces, defence installations or connected therewith and ancillary to defence and national security excluding all commercial and welfare activities; (o record declared as classified by the Minister-in-charge of the Federal Government, provided that the Minister in-charge of the Federal Government will have to record reasons as to why the harm from disclosure of information outweighs public interest, and flirter that information pertaining to allegation of corruption and violation of human rights shall not be excluded; (g) record relating to the personal privacy of any individual; (h) record of private documents furnished to a public body either on an express or implied condition that information contained in any such documents shall not be disclosed to a third party.

The proposed law has also a long list of information exempted from disclosure that includes if its disclosure is likely to cause damage to the interests of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations; harm the detection, prevention, investigation or inquiry in a particular case; reveal the identity of a confidential source of information etc. Or in the case it affects defence or security of Pakistan; or the capability, effectiveness of armed forces of Pakistan or other law enforcement agencies, the bill reads.

However, the bill empowers the incharge-minister to have full authority as the final appellate authority and reduces the role of information commission to sort out complaints or non-compliance. “The bill is weak in the sense that it gives full power to minister-incharge to finally decide whether there is any harm in providing this information to a citizen,” Zahid Abdullah, an expert of the right-to-know laws in Pakistan, said, adding, “Which means there will be no independent authority to decide the complaints of non-provision of information and the government ministers will be the sole authority and it will be their discretion to provide any particular information and they may safeguard government’s interests vis-à-vis public interest.”

He further said there is also a long list of exclusions and exemptions which indicates to protect more and disclose less. He also thinks that the definition of “information” in the proposed law is also not comprehensive. The proposed law describes “information” as the only “information on the record.” He says the bill is slightly better than the earlier law but not an exemplary one. “Not only that the access to information laws in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan are better than Pakistan in South Asia, but the bill is weaker than the right-to-know laws in all provinces of the country,” Abdullah viewed.  To respect the fundamental right of access to government information, he urged for a more powerful and independent commission to decide about the possible non-compliance rather leaving it on a minister’s discretion.

A special committee of the Senate of Pakistan on “Right to Information Bill 2016(RTI),” has been struggling for months to make improvements in the bill. The committee has been resisting bureaucracy to make the public bodies answerable to citizens.

“No legislation is perfect. There is always room for improvement in any legislation passed by any parliament anywhere in the world. There is certainly room for improvement in the RTI Bill recently passed unanimously by the Senate and now before the National Assembly,” Senator Farhatullah Babar, chairperson of the committee said. He viewed that it has always been a huge challenge to seek information from any government, this one or the previous governments. “Secrecy and hesitation to share information is engrained in the psyche of governments. Information means power, it means exposure of hidden dimensions, and it means tearing apart the shroud of secrecy. Nobody wants to share power and no one tolerates exposure of wrong doings,” he said, adding, “That is why information has not been shared with the public on various pretexts; on grounds of national security, relations with foreign countries and the like.

The RTI passed by the Senate does not allow access to information contained in the note portion and minutes of meetings and a compromise was made to allow access to such documents after a period of time.

The chairperson also suggested to the committee that the information contained in the note portion of a file and minutes of meetings should also be declared as public document and liable to be made public on demand. Critical information leading to exposure of wrong doing and corruption is often hidden in the note portion and contained in minutes of meetings leading to a final decision, he viewed. However, his suggestion could not evolve consensus.

“A lot of work will have to be done after it becomes the law. Information Commission and other necessary support mechanism will have to be put in place to implement it. My focus therefore will be on adopting the law without any further loss of time. The gathering political clouds on the horizon do not permit wasting time. Remember, those running too fast behind the best sometime tumble over the better. The RTI may not be the best. But risking tumbling over it in pursuit of the best will be the worst,” he opined.

Lastly, Baber argued that the RTI legislation passed by Senate has tried to bridge this perennial gap between transparency and public good on the one hand and national security considerations on the other. The RTI attempts to benefit from “Johannesburg Principles” that seek to strike a balance, to address this issue. “But the test will lie first; whether the RTI Bill will actually become a law and secondly even if it became the law whether it will be implemented. That is the question,” he concluded.

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