THE Right of Access to Information Bill, 2017, approved by the Senate, is most likely to be passed by the National Assembly and become law as both major opposition and political parties have shown consensus on it. Some in the media and civil society have taken it to be a panacea for the chronic disease of secrecy our public bodies are afflicted with while others have rejected it outright, saying the law will not provide access to public records.

The bill is definitely an improvement on the Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002 it seeks to repeal. However, there remain lacunae in it which may render it ineffective when it comes to implementation. It seems our worthy senators have sacrificed some key principles pertaining to right to information (RTI) legislation in their bid to accommodate competing demands from politicians, civil and military bureaucracy, media and civil society.

However, a couple of amendments can still turn it into an effective enough law that protects interests of citizens and journalists without compromising legitimate security needs of the state.

It is unfortunate that a law pertaining to RTI contains no proper definition of ‘information’. Instead, it lists records that can be made public and records exempted from disclosure. This is in sharp contrast to RTI laws in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Nepal and those enacted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh that define information. Such a definition should be included in the bill and it should be made binding on public bodies to provide access to information if such information falls in the category of records declared public.

The RAI bill empowers federal ministers to declare certain information exempt from disclosure, though they will have to record reasons for doing so and will not be able to exempt from disclosure information that may pertain to violation of human rights and criminal wrongdoing. Furthermore, they will bear the burden of proof before an information commission for classifying certain information in the public interest.

Lacunae in the RAI bill may render the law ineffective.

However, it is the job of the courts and not of ministers and public bodies to determine whether or not certain records pertain to corruption or criminal wrongdoing. Whereas the RAI bill empowers ministers to declare certain records exempt from disclosure that are in the public interest, it does not empower members of the Pakistan Information Commission to declare certain records to be made public in the public interest, the essential feature of effective RTI laws. It is of vital importance that elected representatives empower the PIC to disclose information if such disclosure in the public interest outweighs possible harm.

The bill contains some excellent provisions pertaining to indexation and computerisation of records, proactive disclosure of information and training of public information officials on their responsibilities. However, if the experience of the implementation of the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013 is any guide, implementation will irrevocably be linked to the federal government’s political will. In this regard, three factors will indicate its level of sincerity.

First, timely appointments of information commissioners in line with the criteria in the bill. The Punjab Information Commission is virtually dysfunctional as the Punjab government has failed to appoint information commissioners. Second, timely framing of service rules for the PIC to recruit staff. Third, the centre will have to ensure that adequate resources are allocated for the commission to carry out its functions. Owing to the unavailability of required funds, the Punjab Information Commission has failed to carry out its key functions of creating awareness amongst the people of their rights under the law and the training of public officials.

Time is of the essence. Functioning democracies ensure that stakeholders’ voices are heard in the legislative process through the committees. In December 2016, the government signed on to the Open Government Partnership, an international platform where governments, civil society and the private sector come together to promote transparency. Pakistan has thus committed to making its government more accountable and responsive to citizens. By passing the RAI Bill, 2017 in its present shape, the government is acting in contradiction to its commitments.

Aside from this, elected representatives must determine whether this bill will enable citizens to exercise their constitutional right under Article 19-A of having access to information in matters of public importance, and whether restrictions being imposed on their RTI are ‘reasonable’ as the Constitution requires. Civil society groups and journalists need to join hands in convincing politicians to forward this bill to the standing committee on information as and when it is tabled in the National Assembly.

The writer is an author and rights activist.

zahid@cpdi-pakistan.org

Twitter: @XahidAbdullah

Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2017

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