One of the greatest checks on excessive government power is the right of all citizens to get information about what their representatives are up to. The general principle which should be followed, but rarely is, when it comes to freedom of information laws is that all information should be available to the public except for the rare documents that concern national security. Just because a document reveals government wrongdoing or corruption is not sufficient reason to hide it from public view. The PML-N, however, has turned this ideal on its head with its draft of the freedom of information law. The draft bill seems to be trying its very best to ensure that citizens receive as little information as possible. If a request for information is deemed to be ‘malicious’ or ‘frivolous’ – although the desire to keep a tab on government activity should never be described as such – a fine of up to Rs10,000 can be imposed. To further discourage disclosure, individual departments have the right to decide if they want to make documents public, with the ombudsman only able to advise them, rather than order them, on which course of action to take. Add to that a burdensome fee that must be paid for each request and the freedom of information law begins to sound like an oddly misnamed law.
The PML-N already had two other laws dealing with the same matter to use as a guide: Pervez Musharraf’s 2002 Freedom of Information Ordinance and the PTI’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Ordinance. The two laws are poles apart, with Musharraf’s a masterpiece in obfuscation and doublespeak while the PTI one a model for those who welcome disclosure and accountability. The PML-N opted to use the dictator’s law as a model. It is also unlikely that the opposition parties will clamour for the law to be strengthened since they too might be in power one day and would also prefer not to be scrutinised. Any law that allows our representatives and bureaucrats to operate in the shadows while the public remains unaware of their doings should not be passed by parliament. The PML-N needs to scrap this bill and go back to the drawing board. Even apart from the PTI provincial bill, there are many better examples of freedom of information legislation the government can look at as a guide.