Assuring right to Information
In a major step towards establishing transparency and accountability, the Senate has unanimously passed ‘Right of Access to Information Bill, 2017’. Based on well-recognized principles of maximum disclosures and minimum exemptions, the bill strikes a right balance between national security and public interest. The result of months of deliberations by experienced and rights-oriented members of the upper house, it places within public record a wide-range of subjects: policies and guidelines, disposal of property, public bodies’ expenditure, performance, duties functions, and grant of licences, benefits, privileges and contracts. That would allow citizens to know the exact nature of public officials’ responsibilities and to hold them to account in case of a breach.
The proposed legislation replaces the worthless the Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002, under which government used flimsy pretexts to withhold information. Not long ago, for instance, when a citizen requested information on such a simple matter as the gifts the prime minister had received during his foreign trips over a three-year period, the office concerned refused to answer citing sensitivity of foreign relations. The proposed law permits any citizen to make a request for seeking information from a public office which will have to be provided within three to ten days. And in case of rejection on national security grounds, the concerned official will have to justify, in writing, how national security considerations outweigh public interest. And like in established democracies, the armed forces would be exempt from providing access to their official records, defence installations, details of individual bank accounts, but not their commercial and welfare activities. The consideration of national security will not apply if the information sought is related to corruption; and even more importantly, if the life of a person is involved. In such a case, information will have to provide within three days. As Senator Farhatullah Babar pointed out, although the bill is not aimed at addressing the issue of missing persons it has the potential of dealing with the nagging problem of alleged enforced disappearances.
It is worth noting that while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab had adopted credible new right to information laws, the federal government alongside Sindh and Balochistan had remained reluctant to make necessary amends. That has now changed, apparently, because of corruption getting front and centre spot in the national discourse. Initiated by a member of the opposition, the government adopted it as its own, leading to its unanimous passage and assuring its smooth sailing through the National Assembly to become law. It is a much welcome and earnestly desired progress towards accountable governance as well as protection of ordinary citizens’ human rights.