ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government is still dragging its feet on the federal Right to Information (RTI) law despite approval of the bill by the Senate Standing Committee more than two years ago.
Even 10 years ago while signing the Charter of Democracy (COD) with the Pakistan People’s Party, the PML-N had agreed to pass a law on access to information but the promise could not become reality to date. Since April 2014 when the bill was passed by the Senate Standing Committee on Information, the Minister for Information Parvaiz Rashid promised on numerous occasion to bring the bill in the next cabinet meeting but the same could not be fulfilled.
Pakistan People’s Party which failed to pass the bill during its own 5-year-tenure is urging the government to enact the law immediately. Former President and Co-Chairman of PPP Asif Ali Zardari has reiterated the call on Monday on the eve of World Press Freedom Day.
However the government does not seem to be in hurry on the issue. Talking to The News in January this year the Minister for Information Parvez Rashid had claimed the bill will be cleared in a single sitting of a five-member parliamentary committee of the ruling party.
“Since the cabinet meeting has not been taking place for a long time and the (RTI) bill was getting delayed, the prime minister decided to form a committee to consider this law. This is a way out to table the bill in Parliament as soon as possible,” said the minister.
The committee, comprising Parvaiz Rashid, Ahsan Iqbal, Anusha Rahman Khan, Irfan Siddiqui and Marriyum Aurangzeb, was supposed to formulate recommendations on the Right to Information Bill 2014.
However four months after the latest promise the committee is yet to finalise the bill. “We have held six meetings of the committee since its inception and the government is committed to introduce the bill very soon,” Maryum Orangzeb, a key member of the committee told The News. She said detail review of the bill is underway as it is being compared with similar legislation around the world.
While asked why the committee is taking so much time in finalising the bill despite its passage by the Senate Standing Committee comprising all the political parties, she said: “We are taking time because we want to come up with a bill that is acceptable to all stakeholders.”
She added that Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa RTI laws and their implementations are also being considered while finalising the federal law. Maryum said opinion is being sought from legal experts to avoid duplicate legislation. She said the Minister for Information Parvez Rashid is keen to soon table the bill in the parliament.
When asked why the committee’s deliberations on this bill are kept so secret, she said soon the people will know everything. The delay has prompted strong criticism from the opposition lawmakers and civil society. They are also criticising the government for not making the proceedings of the parliamentary committee public.
“This very bill is about freedom of information but the proceedings of the government committee are shrouded in mystery,” said Zahid Abdullah a campaigner for RTI associated with Centre for Peace and Development Initiative (CPDI).
He said the process of legislation must be kept transparent. Zahid hailed the draft law as one of the best legislations on RTI in its current shape if measured by global standards. Opposition law makers are skeptical of the government’s commitment. The Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Kamil Ali Agha has included the matter in the agenda of the committee’s meeting to be held later this week.
A member of the Committee Farhatullah Babar said the opposition is skeptical because in past 17 times the government had promised to bring the draft to the cabinet meeting but they failed each time in fulfilling their promise.
“The minister for information had promised to the information committee of the Senate more than two years ago that the bill will be presented for cabinet approval to be tabled in Parliament. However, it seems the government is not interested and wants to buy time and then pass the bill at the fade end of current term so that the rulers do not have to abide by the RTI,” he told The News.
The RTI bill, drafted in 2014 for replacing a weak legislation, Freedom of Information Ordinance (FOI) 2002, has also been sent to the international RTI experts for review who declared it the best legislation in the world if adopted. The FOI Ordinance 2002, currently in practice, received 78th position in international ranking of 2013.