ISLAMABAD: Rights activists have criticised an amendment to the Right of Access to Information Act that has been moved as a private member’s bill in the Senate.
They say the amendment would limit the scope of the right to information law by excluding Parliament from the definition of public bodies, which are bound to provide information to citizens.
According to documents available with Dawn, the amendment bill has been moved by independent senators Sajjad Hussain Turi and Mirza Mohammad Afridi, PTI Senator Walid Iqbal, Muttahida Qaumi Movement Senator Mohammad Ali Khan Saif and Balochistan Awami Party Senator Manzoor Ahmed.
The bill, which has been included in the agenda for the Senate session scheduled for the coming week, suggests that the public would not be able to seek information from the National Assembly and Senate, including their secretariats, committees and members.
In a joint statement included in the bill, the senators said the National Assembly and Senate secretariats are constitutional bodies and parliament work is extremely significant and highly sensitive.
The bill argues that in view of the constitutional sanctity provided to the secretariat of the parliament, the Senate and National Assembly do not fall under the definition of public bodies, similar to the Supreme Court, which is also not included in the definition of public bodies in the act.
It states that the decision on information related to Senate and National Assembly is strictly the prerogative of chairman and speaker, respectively. It said the amendment has been proposed to ensure the observance of above said sanctity and privacy of the institution to perform its constitutional and fiduciary duty to the state and its people.
Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development Executive Director Aftab Alam said that the amendment has been moved to dilute the act. He said that if parliament is excluded from the right to information (RTI) law, all the constitutional bodies — including the Presidency, Prime Minister’s Office and divisions — will be as well.
“Other departments which will not be excluded will also find the excuse to deny sharing of information as it will open a way for them as well.
“Removing parliament from the ambit of RTI is sheer subversion of people’s right to information.
“Any attempt to dilute the citizens’ right to information is tantamount to curbing the undiluted fundamental right to information as enshrined in Article 19-A of the Constitution of,” he said.
A number of bodies, including the President Office, have refused to provide information to date although the Federal Information Commission has stated that they are bound to share information.
In a statement, the Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI) also condemned the move, calling it mala fide, unconstitutional, and against the interests of the people of Pakistan.
Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives Executive Director Mukhtar Ahmad said that the proposed amendment will not only weaken the act but also the fledgling democracy in Pakistan.
“Instead of working to establish the reputation of the parliament as the most transparent institution, some senators wish to exclude it from the scope of RTI, which is a prerequisite for transparent governance and public accountability.
“The move is discriminatory and in violation of Article 19A of the Constitution, which clearly states that only ‘reasonable restrictions’ can be imposed by law on citizens’ right to information,” he said.
He said that parliament represents the people, and therefore must be open in its functions and accountable to citizens, who should be able to ask questions and seek information.
Individual Land Director Gulmina Bilal said: “The proposed amendment needs to be strongly rethought as it is deemed to be against the very spirit of transparency and ensuring public oversight of financial resources, authority and public trust.”
The executive director of the Centre for Governance and Public Accountability Mohammad Anwar said: “The very basis for exempting parliament from the ambit of RTI is flawed.
“The sanctity of parliament improves, not diminishes, with more openness and transparency. Citizens must know about the working and performance of parliamentarians. Such information is critical for citizens to decide whom to vote in general elections.
“By depriving citizens from such constitutional rights, the parliament is striking on the very roots of democracy.”
Civic Action Resources Executive Director Adnan Rehmat remarked that “the amendment is unacceptable since the public pays for the parliament’s upkeep.”
“If the representatives of common people cannot deem themselves accountable than they do not deserve our votes and taxes,” he added.
Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2020