Our right to know
Even though the 18th Amendment to the constitution specifically states that the public has a right to know what the government is up to, there is no specific law demanding transparency. The Freedom of Information Ordinance – introduced by Pervez Musharraf and still in operation – is riddled with loopholes. A Right to Information Bill has been doing the rounds of parliament for nearly five years and even passed the Senate in 2013 before it was allowed to lapse. Last month, a Senate standing committee approved a strong RTI bill as did the Sindh government earlier this month. The Sindh bill makes it incumbent on public-sector organisations to upload information about their workings online and gives them 45 days to appoint an officer who will be in charge of handling RTI requests. Hiding information that should be public comes with a penalty should the information not be given within 15 working days. As with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, an independent information commission will be set up, one which has the power to order the government to make information public. These are all points that should be part of the federal RTI bill, which has to be passed by the Senate and Assembly and approved by the Cabinet. In both the Senate and Sindh, however, there is some indication that the public’s right to information is not in an ideal situation as far as government initiatives go. The Senate standing committee has now weakened its own bill by dropping a clause providing protection to whistleblowers. The PPP’s Rubina Khalid claimed that such a clause may be used to settle personal scores; in this she was backed up by the PML-N’s Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb.
An identical scenario played out in Sindh, where the government also had a whistleblower protection clause stripped from it. Once again, the reason given for removing the clause was that it may be used by junior officials who have a vendetta against their bosses. As in the case of the federal RTI bill, this explanation defies logic since judicial review can guard against any abuse of whistleblower protection while ensuring those who reveal government wrongdoing are not punished. Now that the Sindh RTI bill has passed, we will have to wait and see if it follows the spirit of the original bill. An independent information commission will be set up and implementation of the bill will depend on the independence and probity of its members. As much as we may want to believe that the government operates with the best of intentions, all governments have a tendency to hide ‘embarrassments’ and punish those who expose it. Whistleblower protection has to be an integral part of any law that acknowledges that the public has a right to know what is being done in its name. Countries like the US have whistleblower protection laws where the courts decide if an individual was justified in making information public. At the federal level, the Senate standing committee should consider reinserting the whistleblower clause before the RTI bill makes its way to the cabinet and the National Assembly for approval. Previous bills that claimed to serve the public’s right to know ended up doing anything but and we cannot afford to get it wrong again.