Right to information pivotal to all other rights
By Anwar Ali Mansuri
ISLAMABAD: In a democracy, freedom of information is fundamental to the exercise of all other rights of the citizens and Pakistan’s Freedom of Information Ordinance of 2002 does not meet that test.
That observation summed up a discussion by journalists and lawyers on the need to draft a new law on access to information in Pakistan, organised by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) at the National Press Club on Thursday.
Though Pakistan was the first country in South Asia to get a Freedom of Information (FOI) law in 1997 but ironically access to information remains elusive to the citizens to this day, argued the participants.
They lamented that while the 1997 law, given by a caretaker government, lapsed because the next elected parliament did not adopt it, the FOI Ordinance of 2002 is not only underutlised but also faces an uncertain future because of the controversy over 17th amendment which protects it.
Only 51 requests had been filed with the government for information in the eight years of the Ordinance’s existence. That reflected both the public’s disinterest in the ordinance and its cumbersome and restrictive nature.
Journalist Shahidur Rehman, who chaired the session, said two of those requests were put by him while researching his two books – Sovereignty Lost on Pakistan’s debt burden and the other one on its nuclear programme which is still in the works. The government of Pakistan did not respond to his queries but the US government did.
While the Foreign Office told him that it had no records of the period when Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, as head of state, wrote a letter to the US government in September 1947 seeking a $2 billion loan, the US authorities confirmed it, he said. His second query regarding the threat reputedly delivered by Henry Kissinger in 1976 to make “a horrible example” of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto if he pursued his nuclear reprocessing plant deal with France made the Foreign Office completely mum. But his US sources confirmed it, though in a subtle way.
“People want information but the government wants to hide it. We have to resolve this dilemma,” he said, lending support to the CRSS’s project to prepare draft of a new, liberal freedom to information law.
Haroon Rasheed of the British Broadcasting Corporation termed the existing FOI Ordinance’s requirement that the seeker of information declare the purpose for which he needs the information and also submit an affidavit that he won’t use it for any other purpose as “a tactic to delay, if not deny, the information”.
He also recalled that PPPÂ’s Sherry Rehman had piloted a good FOI bill when in opposition but deleted some of those good points from the draft out of political expediency when she moved a bill as Minister of Information.
TV anchor Aasma Shirazi wondered whether the government and its ministries themselves had access to information, such as on the nuclear issue. The terms ‘national interests’ and ‘security interests’ are used as an excuse in denying information on vital issues, she noted.
“The reality is that even courts are not able to get the information they seek about missing persons,” she said.
Mazhar Abbas, a former secretary-general of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, said Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees citizens the right of expression but circumvents it by the vague and undefined conditions of “glory of Islam” and “national interest”.
“Today journalism is in a race against time. But in our country not just the proceedings of the National Security Council are held ‘in camera’ but even those of a sports committee,” he said.
Mazhar Abbas urged fellow journalists to “move away from the ‘he said, she said journalism’ and to investigative journalism”.
But journalists were also haunted by the ‘contempt of court’ phenomenon in such pursuits. He recalled that the reporter who filed a story that his newspaper had retracted as it attracted possible contempt proceedings, has not been called to court to explain his story but the government’s lawyer has been.
Mazhar Abbas recalled that a commission headed by a Supreme Court judge investigating Murtaza Bhutto’s murder in the 1990s had threatened contempt proceedings against Dawn’s reporter Sarfraz for refusing to disclose the source of his information regarding the direction from which the killer bullets came.
But the workers union took the stand that the source would not be disclosed unless access was given to postmortem reports that would establish the fact and the reporter was left untouched, he said.