Information bill will discourage applicants
ISLAMABAD: Senators across party lines endorsed on Tuesday a report of the Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting on the Right to Information Bill, 2013, whose emphasis appears to be hiding rather than giving easy access to information.
The chairman of the standing committee, Kamil Ali Agha of the PML-Q, presented the report before the house. The committee had unanimously approved the draft bill on Aug 28 this year.
Since all parties had already given their approval to its proposals, Senator Agha, instead of seeking endorsement of the report by the house, suggested a debate for a couple of hours. The Senate is now likely to discuss the report on Wednesday.
The bill is supposed to “promote the right to know and facilitate and encourage, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost, the disclosure of information”, but the committee’s report has enunciated a host of clauses which actually discouraged and disallowed an applicant from seeking information.
According to the report, the proposed bill does give an all-encompassing definition of ‘national security’. This includes matters pertaining to integrity, security, or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, and which can be used as a pretext to decline an application for information.
The bill doesn’t provide an explanation of ‘personal privacy of an individual’ which a government organisation can use as an excuse to refuse information.
And above all, the federal government’s departments can declare any document as classified.
No information could be made available about Pakistan’s relations with other states or international organisations if that information could damage the interests of the country. Again, as always, any information could be parked under the definition of ‘national interest’.
Then there is a bar on disclosing information that would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or prejudice a fair trial of a person or the impartial adjudication of a particular case before any court or tribunal.
The bill declares as off-limit information related to all internal working documents of a public body, including proposals for the cabinet’s decisions, proposals relating to the management of the national economy and other affairs of the government, till such time that a final decision thereon has been taken notified by the public body.
Records of banking companies and financial institutions relating to the accounts of their customers will also not be available to public if the proposed bill is converted into a law.
Investigative reports undertaken by agencies for prevention and detection of crime and for the collection and assessment of taxes, including any information obtained and received in the course of any investigation will also be prohibited under the proposed bill.
Interestingly, the bill has proposed a fine of Rs10,000 for an applicant seeking information about a certain government department if it is found to be ‘malicious, frivolous and vexatious’, a clause which some believe would discourage people from invoking the law.
A designated officer will be bound to provide information within 21 days of receiving an application. In case of rejection, the applicant can seek a review from the principal officer of the department concerned within 30 days. The applicant will be able to file a complaint with the Wafaqi Mohtasib and federal tax ombudsman, making the process quite lengthy.
The right to information act introduced by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government of the PTI recently stipulated that if an application is not processed within 10 days, an independent commission will take up the complaint.
It has also offered protection for whistleblowers from within the government if information is leaked in good faith.
No such protection is included in the bill presented before the Senate.
Senator Farhatullah Babar of the PPP was the convener of the three-member Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting.
According to its report, the committee held several meetings with government and non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders before finalising the draft bill.
But Mazhar Abbas, a former general secretary of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, who had worked on the issue of right to information, told Dawn that the committee never contacted him.
“When I came to know that the government is working on the bill, I myself contacted Information Minister Pervez Rashid to give him my input, but he never called back,” said Mr Abbas.
Former senator and information minister Javed Jabbar is also not aware of any consultation which the senate committee has claimed to have on the proposed bill.
Mr Jabbar, who has extensively worked on the subject of freedom of information since the mid-90s and played a key role in formulating the freedom of information act of 2002, refused to comment on the latest bill without going through it.
But Senator Babar defended the bill and said people would be able to get information on government departments, which was not available to them so far.
“To declare any information off-limit for the general public, the designated government officer will have to give a reason for it in writing. I am sure with the passage of the bill, maximum disclosures will be possible about public sector organisations,” he said.
Since the ruling PML-N had given its consent to the bill, it would be passed by the National Assembly too, hoped Senator Babar.