Shutting off information
The Right of Access to Information Bill, unanimously passed by the Senate Standing Committee on Information on Monday, will likely end up allowing the government to suppress information that should be in the public domain. Various iterations of RTI bills have been drafted over the last years but this latest version may be the weakest yet. It is riddled with loopholes which would give the government the power to suppress any information it finds inconvenient or which exposes corruption and wrongdoing. Earlier, the Senate Standing Committee had dropped whistleblower protections from the bill and now the final draft has weakened the powers of an independent commission which would have had the authority to decide which information should be made public. Instead of the commission, ministers will be given the power to decide if information should be kept classified. This makes the RTI bill ripe for abuse since ministers will have a vested interest in hiding information that reflects badly on them. Rather than operating from the principle that information should be public while specifically laying out boundaries for cases of national interest, the bill gives broad latitude to the government in deciding what to keep secret.
The one thing that can be said in favour of the RTI bill is that it is still stronger than the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 which was introduced by Pervez Musharraf and essentially made it impossible to get the government to release documents. But the bill, which should have served as a model for the rest of the country, is substantially weaker than those passed by the governments of Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Among the loopholes it has created, information can be withheld if it will cause damage to the economy or to the commercial activities of the public body. This essentially neutralises the independent commission since the government can argue that any revelation of misconduct on its part could be harmful to our reputation and hence our economy. As it stands, the RTI bill does the bare minimum to fulfil the constitutional obligation, as laid out in the 18thAmendment, of ensuring that the public knows what is being done in its name. This is why the bill has been criticised by both international and local NGOs advocating for transparency. This bill will now have to pass the Senate and the National Assembly, where members should ensure it is amended to make it stronger.