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LAHORE: Rejecting objections to the applications filed by three citizens seeking information from the reluctant Governor House about its expenditure and some other matters, the Punjab Information Commission on Wednesday asked it to do the needful by Oct 23.

The information was sought by Mr Waseem Abbasi of Islamabad, Chaudhry Siraj Din of Sargodha and Mr Waseem Elahi of Gujranwala but was denied on one pretext or another by the Governor Secretariat.

In its final verdict on Wednesday, the commission maintained it was argued that, under Article 19A of the Constitution, the right to information was restricted to matters of “public importance” and it was further subject to “regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.” In this regard, the secretariat had relied upon a Supreme Court judgment.

The commission said the judgment was primarily and specifically about the question of admissibility of petitions directly filed in the Supreme Court of Pakistan under Article 184(3) of the Constitution. The judgment itself recognised the limitations of any definition of ‘public importance’ by stating that “whether a particular case involved the element of ‘public importance’ is a question which is first to be determined by this Court with reference to the facts and circumstances of each case.”

In the context of right to information regarding official records, the term ‘public importance’ had to be understood in terms of what records should be accessible to each and every member of the public vis-à-vis the records which were of personal nature and whose disclosure might amount to invasion of privacy of a specific individual.

Furthermore, while interpreting the term ‘public importance’ in the context of Article 19A of the Constitution, it had to be kept in mind that right to information was now universally recognised as a human right, which could be exercised to access information about matters of individual, community or public interest.

Therefore, the commission declared, when information was denied to an individual in relation to his personal or any other matter of larger community or public interest, it created hurdles in most cases in the realisation of human rights, not just for that particular individual but, in view of the aggregate effect of such a situation, for the whole nation.

The right to information was one such right, which in view of its enabling role for other rights and freedoms, had to be interpreted in a manner that it contributed to create conducive conditions for the realisation of democratic ideals and fundamental rights.

The commission rejected the excuse that under his oath the governor could not reveal information to any person. It said, in fact, the governor was duty bound to disclose information, when it was required by the Constitution or law. The insistence of the office of the governor on maximum secrecy not only disregarded the explicit provisions of the law, but was also in deviation from the spirit of a democratic order, wherein information must flow freely to inform and empower the voters, who were the real and the ultimate stakeholders in the affairs of the state.

The commission rejected another plea that the requested information could not be provided in view of Articles 6 and 7 of the Qanun-i-Shahadat Order 1984 and the Official Secret Act 1923, which are Federal laws and, in terms of Article 143 of the Constitution, prevail over the provincial laws.

It said these provisions were about the presentation of evidence in the courts of law and, hence, were not relevant to the disclosure of information to the general public under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013. While the courts had a limited function of deciding cases brought before them, the objectives of the Act were much broader and included transparency, government accountability and improved access to public information.

The Act had now specifically declared the kind of information that could be kept secret, and that all other information must be disclosed proactively or in reaction to applications filed by citizens. It had no conflict with the Official Secrets Act 1923 and, in fact, both complemented each other.

It said the Official Secrets Act 1923 was about unauthorised disclosure or leakage of information and was not applicable on information provided to citizens through a mechanism established by an Act. Hence, the commission said, it was clear that an authorised person could disclose or communicate information and the question of who was authorised for such a purpose was to be decided by the government, which held such information or records.

The commission directed the Secretary to the Governor to establish an online Management Information System (MIS) for, among others, budget management, procurements and representations filed against the recommendations of ombudsmen. It advised the chief secretary to constitute a committee of senior officers and other stakeholders to review and then develop recommendations for the amendment of laws, rules and manuals, which include provisions contradictory to the provisions of the 2013 law and create confusion in the minds of public information officers.

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2015

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