ISLAMABAD: The Senate unanimously passed on Tuesday the much-demanded access to information bill, which grants citizens complete access to the record of public authorities.

The landmark legislation is expected to make the government more accountable regarding corruption and inefficiency, besides ensuring good governance, sound economy and the respect for human rights.

However, under the ‘Right of Access to Information Bill 2017’ there will be no access to the official record of armed forces, defence installations, details of individuals’ bank accounts, defence and national security. But information regarding defence-related commercial and welfare activities can be accessed.

Any Pakistani citizen can make a request for seeking information regarding public offices by paying some amount, which will be fixed later. The principal officer in these departments will have to provide the applicant with the relevant information within three to 10 days.

In case of non-availability of information, the officer will have to justify his act in writing and clearly state how the considerations of national security outweighed public interest. The applicant will still have the right of appeal.

In a rare instance, the bill was supported by all parties and members belonging to all provinces. It is said to rest on the tripod of universally recognised principles of maximum disclosure, minimum exemptions and the right of appeal.

Bill has potential of discouraging disappearances, says senator

In the document, a balance has been struck for the first time between national security and public interest and it is believed that information cannot be withheld from public on the mere excuse of “national interest”.

The consideration of national security will not apply if the piece of information sought relates to corruption or a threat to life was involved. In such cases, no information can be withheld under the new law.

It was a private member bill first introduced by Senator Kamil Ali Agha. But when the government desired to own it, the opposition agreed that it should be presented by the government.

Later, opposition leader Farhatullah Babar and Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb worked for its unanimous passage by the upper house.

The bill, having complete government support, is also expected to be passed by the National Assembly soon. And with the final nod of President Mamnoon Hussain, it will become a law which has to be implemented within six months.

Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani also congratulated the house for passing “a historic legislation” despite some teething problems coming in its way.

He hoped that the bill would smoothly be passed by the lower house as it was for the first time on this issue that all stakeholders were on the same page.

Ms Aurangzeb said such laws were already available in provinces but the centre lacked it. She gave credit of the passage of the bill to all stakeholders, including the opposition. “There is a balance in the bill between national and public interests,” she said.

Senator Farhatullah Babar said that although the bill was not aimed at addressing the issue of missing persons, it still had the potential of discouraging disappearances allegedly by security agencies. “If someone’s life is in danger, information about him or her has to be furnished within three days,” he said.

“We have employed the Johannesburg Principles to strike this delicate balance,” he said, adding that a significant feature of the bill was that even the courts, parliament and the NGOs funded by the government were not exempted and had been brought under the ambit of the law.

Later talking to Dawn, he said questions asked in the Senate about the suo motu cases taken up by superior courts were not replied on the ground that it militated against the independence of the judiciary. “Not long ago the registrar of the Supreme Court declined to submit accounts before the parliament’s public accounts committee,” he added.

He said parliamentary questions such as whether an inquiry had been held into the Kargil misadventure and several other similar questions were not answered on the grounds of national security.

Declaration of public record

Under the bill, the following record will be declared as public record: policies and guidelines, the disposal of property, the expenditure of public body, performance, duties, functions, grant of licences, benefits, privileges and contracts.

Appeals

An applicant who is not satisfied by the decision of designated officer can file an appeal within 30 days. Information commissioners will then be appointed in all public bodies to address these appeals.

Later, the Senate also passed the ‘Post Office Amendment Bill, 2017’, which is aimed at restructuring and improving the postal service system in the country.

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2017

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