Members of a Senate select committee on Tuesday unanimously adopted a bill that seeks to codify citizens' right to information.

During the meeting, members of the senate committee reviewed the bill clause-by-clause and unanimously adopted all amendments and recommendations.

The RTI bill is intended to replace the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 — the existing right to information law — at the federal level.

The newly-adopted law recognises citizens’ right to know under the Constitution, and to have access to information about the activities of the government.

What you need to know about the proposed law

1. Recognises citizens' 'right to know' and right to information about the govt's activities.

2. Aims to facilitate those seeking information on govt's activities and ensure transparency.

3. Seeks to protect whistleblowers who want to expose corruption in public and security institutions.

4. Seeks to ensure that information on missing persons is provided within 3 days of request.

It also seeks to ensure that information on missing persons is provided in writing by the relevant institution within three days of a request for information being filed.

The bill also includes provisions for the protection of whistleblowers, as any person associated with a public entity who raises a flag on corruption and misappropriations in that entity will be protected under the law, and will receive immunity from prosecution in related cases.

Whistleblowers from security institutions will receive similar protection.

A three-member commission with the power to order public bodies to disclose information and provide records will be formed to hear RTI requests.

The commission will entertain requests for records from the past 20 years, as records older than 20 years will automatically pass in the public domain.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will appoint members to the commission, which is expected to comprise one member of civil society, one from the bureaucracy, and one from the judiciary.

In a bi-annual report, to be submitted to parliament, the commission will provide "an overview of activities undertaken by all public bodies."

A standing committee of the Senate and National Assembly will have the authority to remove members of the commission. Penal action will be taken against members of the commission in case they deliberately destroy any records.

In later remarks, Senator Farhatullah Babar, who chaired the committee, said in case a person is abducted and killed by security agencies, the agencies will no longer be able to use 'national security' as an excuse not to provide information on the matter.

He further said that no information that pertains to matters of fundamental human rights will be allowed to be withheld.

"The bill will grant the common man greater access to information," Farhatullah Baber said as he addressed media after the senate committee meeting.

The senator said that information regarding corruption in public institutions may now be more readily available with the passage of the Act.

He said that information that has so far been held from the public will be obtainable through an appeal to an independent appellate body.

"In order for any piece of information to remain withheld from the public, some steps will need to be taken," the senator explained.

"The authorised officer will have to explain in writing why the information should not be made public."

In the explanation, the officer should provide reasons why divulging the information will impact national security, so that the committee can decide what is in the national interest for such cases, Babar elaborated.

"If there is corruption in a security organisation, that information will [also] be brought forward," Babar assured.

He said he was confident that the new law would prove of great assistance in cases pertaining to missing persons.

"In the name of national security, citizens have not been granted access to a lot of information," he noted.

"It will no longer be possible to withhold critical information just because it has been arbitrarily decided that it is secret or sensitive," he said.

The Act will be presented to parliament for further deliberations.


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