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Whistleblowers bill

August 21, 2017

A DEMOCRATIC system gives the people the means to elect their representatives, but it does not always have adequate mechanisms of accountability that are intrinsic to a democracy. The passage in the National Assembly on Thursday of the Public Interest Disclosures Bill, 2017, which provides protection to whistleblowers in matters of public interest, goes some way to address this shortcoming. After passage by the Senate, the law will apply to the entire country. The proposed legislation covers disclosures relating to, firstly: “wilful misuse of power or wilful misuse of discretion by virtue of which substantial loss is caused to the government or substantial wrongful gain to the public servant or to third party” and secondly: “commission of or an attempt to commit an offence of corruption … as defined in the NAB Ordinance 1999… .” It thus brings both federal and provincial government employees within its ambit. However, the bill also defines exemptions whereby the disclosure of certain categories of information will not afford the whistleblower any protection. Among these is information likely to “prejudicially” affect Pakistan’s sovereignty and integrity, its security, strategic and economic interests, impede the investigation, apprehension or prosecution of offenders, or if it does not involve an issue of public interest.

Whistleblowers are the secret weapon of the public interest. They have in recent years been responsible for some of the biggest exposés that have set off alarm bells across the globe, forced policy changes, and made some heads roll. Bradley Manning’s and Edward Snowden’s leaks were largely related to classified or sensitive government data, revealing US military and diplomatic communications in the first instance and intrusive global surveillance programmes in the second. The largest exposé by far, however, which had a commensurate public interest dimension, was the Panama Papers. Comprising an unprecedented 11.5m files that revealed private financial information about thousands of wealthy individuals, it has since had deleterious effects on large numbers of public officials. The continuing reverberations in Pakistan from that episode are there for all to see. That brings us to another issue: whistleblowers are often the bane of governments. It can also take a great deal of courage for individuals to lay bare malfeasance by those who can use the state apparatus to punish whistleblowers by ruining their lives and careers. With even right to information being given short shrift in this country, how thoroughly will the law to protect whistleblowers be implemented?

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2017