Punjab Right to Information Law 2013: people urged to seek access to government information
The Press Council of Pakistan (PEC) held a day long ‘An Interactive Session on Implementing the True Version of Punjab Right to Information Law 2013’ to make it more effective, meaningful and in line with the modern concept of openness and transparency in statecraft and democratic governance.
Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah presided over the session. Among the speakers included PCP Chairman Raja Shafqat Khan Abbasi, Wamiq A Zuberi, editor of Business Recorder, I A Rehman, veteran journalist and human rights activist, Fasih Iqbal, a former senator and Chief Editor Balochistan Times and Zamana, Professor Dr Mughees uddin Sheikh, Nasir Zahid, Zahid Abdullah and Mukhtar Ahmad.
While addressing the participants, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said right to information and freedom of expression are the same thing, which empowers people. He also said after a continuous struggle the nation obtained right to information; it was not served on a platter. “We need to credit all those people who waged the struggle,” he added.
He welcomed the valuable suggestions put forth by the speakers and added that by promulgating an ordinance on right to information, the government intended to familiarize the public with the new law and initiate a discussion on it. “After 90 days, the ordinance in the shape of a bill will be tabled in the House and it will be thoroughly discussed in the House’s Standing Committee. All the stakeholders, including the members of the PCP, will be invited to give their suggestions, which will be incorporated in the final draft of the bill,” he added.
He supported the idea of extending the scope of the bill to the private sector and added that the people should know how the organisations handling public finances spend their hard earned money. I A Rehman drew attention of the participants towards flaws in the new law. He said the law gives right to information, but does not talk about right to public record, which are two different things. He was of the view that the people should also have an access to public record.
On the Punjab Right to Information Law 2013 itself, the speaker urged the Punjab government to narrow down the definition of ‘exception’ in the bill, which in his view was too broad that could be used as a convenient tool to censor information. He said there should also be no bar on the information regarding international relations. “The new law gives a right to complaint, but it is ineffective under the ‘broad definition of exception’,” he added.
He observed that the law would only be successful if the citizens show keenness in accessing information; at present there is no interest among the people to get information. Wamiq A Zuberi said All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and PCP played a visible role in compelling the government to bring a new law on right to information. He pointed out that there is a need to give a legal protection to whistleblowers.
He observed that the new law does not ensure independence of the information commission, since its budget is approved by the executive. He said under the existing arrangement, the commission’s independence will be compromised. “Hence, the commission’s financial autonomy needs to be ensured,” he added. He also said there is a need to create awareness about the law among the people; volunteer organisations could impart information to people about application of the law.
While referring to objections regarding ‘content’ of newspapers and electronic media, he said “today the Pakistani nation has the option of TV channels and hence can choose the content they want to watch.” He averred that they could easily avoid channels that sensationalise news or air programmes that are detrimental to society. He said “ratings will filter out unwanted channels. People are another watchdog over TV channels,” he added. Raja Shafqat Khan Abbasi said people are the real stakeholder in democracy and thus it is there right to have access to information. He said the people should have the right to know how their money is used by the government. “There should be maximum openness and minimum secrecy,” he added.
He also supported the idea of an independent information commission. He also urged the people to play their part by demanding access to government information. Professor Dr Mughees uddin Sheikh was of the view that there is a need to train journalists about the new law, so that they could gain maximum information under the new law. He questioned as to why the scope of the new law has been limited to government departments only, the people should also have a right to information about the working of private sector, including NGOs.
Fasih Iqbal commended the Punjab government for introducing the new law. He observed that such law is much needed by Balochistan, where access to information has been virtually non-existent. “Billions of rupees were spent by a few ministers without accountability in Balochistan. Such a law is needed to ensure transparency,” he added. Mukhtar Ahmad said without such a law we cannot end corruption, ensure good governance and transparency. He said the Punjab Right to Information Law 2013 is a good law that is at par with international standards. “However, there is room for improvement in the new law. Implementation mechanism defined in the law needs to be strengthened and in this connection the information commission should be empowered. Also, rather executive, the law should hold the commission accountable,” he added.