ISLAMABAD: Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has ‘advised’ the federal government to reconsider its decision to keep information about gifts received from foreign heads of states and governments and other dignitaries confidential.

The judge was hearing a petition of the cabinet division that had challenged an order of the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) which had asked the former to share details of the gifts presented to Prime Minister Imran Khan since August 2018.

“The government should not be ashamed of making such details public,” said Justice Aurangzeb, adding that details of the gifts relating to national security might be kept confidential.

Assistant Attorney General Atiqur Rehman Siddiqui sought time from the court to get instructions on the matter from the government.

At this, Justice Aurangzeb told the law officer that the government might be asked to reconsider its decision of keeping the information confidential, and adjourned the hearing.

As per details of the case, a citizen, Abrar Khalid, filed an application before PIC, seeking details of the gifts received by Mr Khan during his three years as prime minister of the country.

The cabinet division objected to disclosing the requisite information and took the stance before PIC that the matter did not fall within the ambit of Right of Access to Information Act, 2017.

The commission, however, allowed the application and directed the cabinet division to “provide the requested information about the gifts received by Prime Minister Imran Khan from foreign heads of states, heads of governments and other foreign dignitaries… description/specification of each gift, information about the gifts retained by the PM and the Rules under which gifts thus received are retained by him”.

The commission directed the division to share the information within 10 working days and upload the same on the official website.

In its petition the cabinet division claimed that PIC’s order was “illegal, (and) without lawful authority”.

It referred to a letter of April 4, 1993, which had declared the details of Toshakhana (store where the gifts are kept) as “classified/secret” and said the information, therefore, could not be requisitioned under the Access to Information Act.

“The record is classified with the direction of the Prime Minister’s Office as the exchange of gifts between the Heads of States and the Heads of Governments is reflective of interstate relations, disclosure of such information will potentially damage the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations, jeopardising interstate relations,” it added.

The cabinet division had taken a similar stance before PIC. However, the commission noted in its order that “in fact, the Respondent [cabinet division] has denied access to each item of the requested information by citing “section-7(f) & clause 16(ii) of Right of Access to Information Act”.

“Even the requested information about the rules under which gifts received from foreign dignities are retained by the prime minister has been exempted under these sections.”

The commission held that it is not ‘certified information’ but absence of ‘certified information’ that contributes to “media hype” resulting in “unwarranted stories”, creating a trust deficit between the citizens and public institutions.

“Certified requested information will dispel rumours about the reporting of the gifts to ‘Tosha Khana’ by the public officials and their retention price and which elected representative or public official retained which gift at what price.”

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2021

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