Access and exemptions: Right to information
A SPEAKER at a workshop was recently quoted as calling the right to information the mother of all rights. Pakistanis have taken their time to realise this basic principle and now when they are making an effort to access information as a right, there are fears they might end up with less than what they deserve. The proposed federal Access to Information Bill 2013 is ready to be tabled in the next Senate session after it was given the ‘consensual’ stamp by a house standing committee.
The media that is so central to the dissemination of information has reason to be not very pleased with the exemptions and qualifications the authors of the draft find so necessary. The discussion in the media has narrowed in on the qualifications the draft seeks to incorporate, with the term “national interests” once again generating apprehensions. And if the national interest doctrine is not a sufficient deterrent that can be invoked to deny access, there is an attempt at the outset to empower certain ministries to refuse information. One exemplary exemption that reflects the protective thinking of the framers of the law is where the meeting records of the cabinet, the Council of Common Interests and National Economic Council and their committees “that have a bearing on national security” can be kept secret from the people.
In a country so used to dealing with the people’s affairs preferably without their knowledge, the making of a right to information law leaves many in the government and assemblies uneasy. It would perhaps be too harsh to say the draft bill aims to take away more than it gives. But if it is progress, it is progress that does not conform to the common-sense standards and needs of today.