Disclosure of Toshakhana gifts can be ‘potentially damaging’ for Pakistan’s foreign relations, govt tells LHC
The government on Thursday recorded its apprehensions before the Lahore High Court (LHC) regarding Toshakhana gifts, saying the public disclosure of such articles could cause “unnecessary media hype, which might be potentially damaging to the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations”.
The concern was raised by the government in its report submitted before the single-judge bench during the hearing of a petition seeking to make records of Toshakhana gifts public.
The petition was filed by a private citizen Munir Ahmad through advocate Azhar Siddique in December 2022.
Established in 1974, the Toshakhana is a department under the administrative control of the Cabinet Division and stores precious gifts given to rulers, parliamentarians, bureaucrats, and officials by heads of other governments and states and foreign dignitaries.
According to Toshakhana rules, gifts/presents and other such materials received by persons to whom these rules apply shall be reported to the Cabinet Division.
The department has been in the news in recent days in light of proceedings against former prime minister Imran Khan for “not sharing details” of Toshakhana gifts.
The government’s stance also comes against the backdrop of its criticism of Imran for “not sharing details” of Toshakhana gifts and proceeds from their alleged sale. A reference was also filed against the PTI chief by the coalition government in August last year for not declaring in his assets the amount he received from the sale of state gifts.
The PTI, while in government, had been reluctant to disclose details of the gifts presented to Imran since he assumed office in 2018, maintaining that doing so would jeopardise international ties, even as the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) ordered it to do so.
Justice Asim Hafeez of the LHC conducted today’s proceedings, while Additional Attorney General Nasar Ahmed appeared on behalf of the government.
At the outset of the hearing, Ahmed apprised the court of a written response submitted by the government to the court detailing Toshakhana rules along with its disclosure policy.
In its three-page response, the government said: “The Toshakhana was transferred from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Cabinet Division in 1973 under Schedule-II of the Rule of Business, 1973. The gifts deposited in Toshakhana of Cabinet Division are governed under the ‘Procedure for Acceptance and Disposal of Gifts’, amended from time to time. Lastly, the Procedure was amended in the year 2018 whereby the retention cost of the gift(s) was enhanced from 20 per cent to 50pc of the assessed value.”
In a significant admission, the response said: The Prime Minister’s Office (dated 26-11.2015), declared that the information pertaining to Toshakhana gifts is classified as disclosure of such information can cause unnecessary media hype, which could be potentially damaging to the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations.“
The report also quoted section 15 (1) of “the erstwhile Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 that reads information may be exempt if its disclosures would be likely to cause grave and significant damage to the interest of Pakistan In the conduct of international relations”.
The government argued that “The Right of Access to Information (RTI) Act, 2017”, also provided exemption from disclosure of the information that pertained “to the personal privacy of an individual, the information declared as classified by the minister-in-charge of the federal government and the information whose disclosure may cause damage to the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations.”
It went on to say that “various requests by private citizens seeking Toshakhana information under Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 were declined by the Cabinet Division in terms of PMO’s letter and Sections ibid.”
“Aggrieved by the decisions, the applicants filed appeals to the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC), on which directions were given to the Cabinet Division to provide information to the appellants. On May 24, 2022, the PIC also passed adverse orders of docking of one-month salary of the cabinet secretary.”
The government’s response said the Cabinet Division had later challenged orders passed by PIC in the Islamabad High Court and the hearing of the case was due on Feb 6.
“The Cabinet Division, since the onset of litigations, has continuously been apprising Prime Minister’s Office through summaries / notes to secretary to the prime minister on half a dozen times proposing disclosure of requested information in the light of the observations of the courts.”
However, according to the response, the PMO constituted an inter-ministerial committee to formulate a new Toshakhana policy based on international best practices and principles of openness and transparency.
While constituting Inter-Ministerial Committee, Prime Minister’s Office also desired to maintain confidentially of the information as per existing SOPs till the new policy was formulated, the government said in its reply.
It said the recommendations of the committee along with the new proposed Toshakhana Procedure, 2022 and draft legislation were submitted to the PMO on Aug 12, 2022 for approval and its subsequent placement before the Federal Cabinet.
After sharing the content of the report, the additional attorney general told the court that Toshakhana gifts were not given to dignitaries by Pakistani citizens.
“How could gifts be considered classified if they were sold later?” Justice Asim Hafeez asked.
The court said it might not seek the disclosure of gifts if an affidavit was submitted by the government.
The additional attorney general assured the bench he would submit the affidavit soon.
The court insisted that the affidavit must contain reasoning as to why a particular gift be considered classified.
“You also have to submit a record along with the affidavit. The hearing will be held in a closed room,” Justice Hafeez noted.
The attorney said it was also possible that the cabinet might take a decision before the next hearing of the case.
Petitioner’s counsel Azhar Siddique said Toshkhana’s details were classified until 2015, however, later they had been made public.
After listening to the arguments, the court ordered the cabinet secretary to submit an affidavit in two weeks.
The hearing was adjourned till Feb 7.
Meanwhile, PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry expressed surprise at the government’s reply, saying “a Toshakhana watch was the top agenda of the government until a few days ago and now it is finding an escape route due to fears of being exposed”.
The plea seeking the details was filed by lawyer Munir Ahmad through Advocate Azhar Siddique last week.
The plea stated: “The right to information is an integral part of a progressive democratic state and the same has been elaborated by the superior courts saying the right to information in all matters of public importance is indisputably a fundamental right guaranteed under Article(s) 19 and 19-A of the Constitution.”
According to the petitioner, the right to information stems from the requirement that members of a democratic society should be sufficiently informed that they may intelligently influence the decision which may affect them.
Therefore, he argued, the people of Pakistan had the right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by public functionaries and their chosen representatives.
The petitioner contended that people at large were entitled to know details of every public transaction and acquire information in all matters of public importance.
“This enables people to contribute in debate on social and moral issues and matter of public importance.”
The plea urged the court to order the respondents to make public the details of assets gifted to rulers as well as bureaucrats and also provide the names, details, information, documentation and materials in respect of the persons/officials who have obtained the assets by making the payment.
The petitioner also sought details of the methodology used to determine the price of the Toshakhana articles.
Ministries of Parliamentary Affairs and Interior and Pakistan Information Commission have been arrayed as respondents in the petition.
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