Freedom of Information: CPNE'S position on draft Ordinance clarified -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Freedom of Information: CPNE’S position on draft Ordinance clarified

LAHORE- Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors President Arif Nizami has clarified the CPNE’s position on the draft Freedom of Information Ordinance 2000 in response to the statement of Federal Minister for Information and Media Development Javed Jabbar.

In a statement issued Nizami said the draft ordinance not only made no attempt to deal with the flaws of the 1997 Ordinance, but introduced procedural changes which effectively would allow bureaucrats to block public access to information.

He added that the 1997 Ordinance itself fell far short of the expectations of the media, as it did not facilitate journalists in accessing information, while the present draft was a retrogression.

He said Section 8(2) of the draft Ordinance provided a procedure by which the “designated officials responsible for dealing with applications for information could almost endlessly delay the process by making objections.

Since the officials had up to 21 days to respond, and the applicant had to have recourse to the Wafaqi Mohtasib if refused, if officials started making their objections one at a time, the process could take months.

The new draft made explicit what was only implicit in the old ordinance, Nizmi said, that officials had the discretion to judge an applicant not entitled to receive such information. He said that raising the question of whether a member of the public was entitled to access to a public record or not was to defeat the purpose of such legislation.

He also pointed out the anomaly that whereas Section 3 defined which public records were accessible, and Section 4 those which were excluded, Section 8 allowed officials to make two separate objections; first, that the required information was not public record under Section 3, and second, that the required information was excluded record under Section 4. This, he said, implied that there were three categories of records; public records, not-public records and excluded records.

Nizami said the intention of the legislation seemed to provide very restricted access to certain innocuous records which would add little or nothing to citizens’ and the media’s understanding of the workings of government, and which would defeat the concept of a freedom of information Act.

Nizami recalled that the committee which had helped shape the 1997 Ordinance, headed by the then law minister Shahid Hamid, included the then Information minister Irshad Haqqani, as well as present Federal Information Minister Javed Jabbar and Punjab Information Minister Shafqat Mahmood, with the result that the issues raised in criticism of the original Ordinance have been swept under the carpet.

The 1997 Ordinance had serious flaws, which were pointed out at the time, but no use seems to have been made of that experience. Responding to Jabbar’s claim that there was some misunderstanding on the part of the CPNE about the draft Ordinance, he said there was no misunderstanding on the part of the CPNE about the apparent attempt to bypass the Press bodies on this issue for international experience had shown that, while Freedom of Information legislation allowed all citizens access in theory, in practice the bulk of use was made by the Press. Therefore, the press bodies had every hot to claim a special interest in the legislation, and a right to be appropriately consulted.

He pointed out that freedom of information as an issue was not a high priority with the average citizen, and therefore eliciting public opinion on it might be a means to provide the government with excuses to deny the just demands of the Press.

The draft legislation, like the 1997 Ordinance, merely provided a facade of freedom of information, while press from public disclosure the governmental decision-making processes which had in the past-allowed national interests to be sacrificed and economic development to be derailed.

Source: The News