Punjab freedom of information bill: Civil society rejects draft
LAHORE: Representatives of civil society organisations on Friday rejected the draft Punjab Freedom of Information Bill 2013, describing it as a “disabler law” having no mention of the status of whistleblowers.
Maximised time of redressal mechanism, long list of arbitrary “exemptions”, safeguarding many public domain information with the notion of “national defence or security”, “public order” and “public interest”, concealing commercial interest of a public body running with taxpayers’ money and not questioning government ability to manage economy were some of the points they criticised during a discussion on the draft bill, which the Punjab government has offered for public comments.
The full text of the draft law was published in English language in leading Urdu newspaper on Aug 8.
The consultation was organised by UNDP-Pakistan and Punjab Lok Sujag. The participants discussed proposed law from three angles. They were of the view that the proposed draft was overwhelmed by disabling clauses in relation to citizens’ “Right to Information” being protected in Article 19-A of the 1973 Constitution. “The spirit of Article 19 (A) is tactfully denied in the proposed law,” it was noted.
“The draft is deficient on account of definitional clarity, procedural framework and scope of operations,” it was observed. The intent of law should be to enable citizens to have access to information but the draft law apparently disables citizens to exercise their right to information.
They urged the lawmakers to screen the draft within the ambit of Article 19(A), revisit and improve before making it a piece of legislation in the Punjab Assembly.
They urged that the title of the proposed law should adopt constitutional expression (Article 19-A) and it should be rephrased as “The Punjab Right to Information Act-2013” and this spirit shall also be reflected in its preamble.
The overstretched area of ‘exemptions’ (Clause 13) in the disclosure of information was noted as the major disabler, as some of the exemptions proposed in the law do not meet the standards of openness and responsive and transparent governance.
The denial of access to information under the pretext of “public order”, “public interest” is misleading, as this opens a room for subjectively motivated interpretations on part of the information provider (the state).
It was indicated that sometimes even information related to early warning on disasters is concealed on the pretext of panic flight and maintenance of “public order”. It was also noted that generic terms were used without precise definitions.
The participants observed that the list of exemptions was too long, vague and generalised. Umbrella terms like ‘national defence and security’, ‘international relations’, ‘legally privileged information’, ‘legitimate commercial interests’, ‘ability to manage economy’ etc. have been used that have the potential of misuse in almost all situations and can create hindrances in provision of information.
It was suggested that clauses (g) and (h) should be removed and rest be clearly defined in the ‘definitions’. Authority for interpretation of the above mentioned terms lies with the information officer and hence can be used subjectively in varying circumstances. Section 13 needs to be revised completely into a concise, comprehensive and pragmatic statement.
The participants demanded that the proposed law should have overriding effect over all other laws. Giving it ‘effect of precedence’ on other laws leaves space for clog on information thus defying the spirit of right to information, they argued.
It was highlighted that the relationship of the draft law with other laws should be clearly defined and all existing laws, rules, regulations, staff training rules and administrative manuals must be brought in accordance with the commands of Article 19-A of the Constitution.
The proposed law must state the deadline for formulation of Information Commission. Timeline provided by the law to get information should be rationalised and 21 extendable days for Public Information Officer, and 30 extendable days before Information Commission provided by the law should not be left unfettered. It was also demanded that punitive actions must be clearly provided by the law.
The proposed law has not provided for the definite punishments for offences that are distinguishable and has rounded “destruction of record” and “obstruction” in providing information in generalised terms, making it vague in its nature and inefficient in its application. The amount of fine and the court which will take cognizance of the offence has not been provided by the proposed law.
The time period for declassifying the information that has been refused or held by the government on the basis of exceptions provided by the draft must be made part of the law.
It was observed that there was no mentioning of whistleblower and the ‘whistleblowers’ must be given protection by the law. The definition of information Clause 2 (f) should include “data generated from public money” and all matters, including public importance. The officers who are or have been in provincial or federal service in basic scale 20 must be eligible to be appointed as information commissioner. The Punjab government must allocate budget for actual enactment and popularisation of law.
The consultation was attended by senior lawyers, media persons, Centre of Civic Education, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Center for Peace and Development Initiative, Strengthening Participatory Organization, THAAP, South Asia Partnership Pakistan, ActionAid, United Nations Development Programme and Punjab Lok Sujag. Zafarullah Khan presented an overview of the law.