RIT Bill 2017 does not provide possible access to public records

Islamabad :Raising concerns over Right of Access to Information (RAI) Bill 2017, which was passed by the Senate on Tuesday, the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) said the purview of the bill is regrettably restrictive and ineffective.

“The RAI Bill 2017 passed by the Senate is not in harmony with the globally accepted principles of RTI legislation,” CPDI Executive Director Amer Ejaz, says in a press release on Thursday.

He said the bill fell short of meeting key standards of effective right to information legislation.Like, the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, he opined, the RAI Bill 2017 also violated the key standard of effective right to information legislation, which says “There should be one clear and narrowly drawn list of exempted information and the rest should be declared public.”

The National Assembly should revise the bill after taking input of civil society groups and right to information experts, he maintained.The proposed commission on access to information in the RAI Bill 2017 should be empowered to instruct public bodies to disclose the information if the disclosure is in public interest and outweighs the likely harm, he added.

“It is strange that how minister-in-charge of the federal government can name a document as classified, while this right should have been with the Pakistan Information Commission,” he went on to say.It is Suffice to say that Right of access to information 2017 does not ensure constitutionally guaranteed citizen’s fundamental right to know in an optimal shape, he said.

It is to be recorded that just two days before the bill was approved by the Senate, the CPDI had penned a letter to the Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb highlighting the flaws in the bill.

It was maintained that the bill is limited in its scope as the definition of Information in Section 2(v) is limited, the Bill lacks grounds of complaints in Section 2(1) grievance of an applicant is termed as an ‘appeal’ and not as a complaint, grounds on which an applicant could have ‘a complaint’ is not elaborated.

Right of access to information as described in Section 2(12) is limited and lack right of inspection and right to take certified samples from the public bodies. Despite of having one narrowly drawn list of exemptions, Right of Access to Information Bill 2017 possesses three different lists of exemptions and the powers granted to ‘Pakistan Commission on Access to Information’ are also limited.


Govt urged to empower information commission

ISLAMABAD: The Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI) on Thursday said that government circles lacked understanding about the purpose of ‘right to information legislation’.

In response to a statement by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the CRTI, a consortium of 48 civil society organisations working to protect and promote citizens’ right to information, observed: “It seems there is relative lack of understanding about the purpose of right to information legislation in government circles as demonstrated by the interior minister on Sunday when he said that no one will be allowed to hide behind Right to Information Act.”

The interior minister during his news conference last week on the issue of alleged security leaks in a news story published in Dawn had said: “It is a national security issue and no one should hide behind the right to protect the source.” He said that “now the reporter is the only best source”.

The CRTI urged the government to empower the proposed Pakistan Information Commission with regard to ensuring disclosure of information in matters of public interest and protecting sensitive information. It believed that effective right to information laws not only facilitated easy and cost-effective access to information held by public bodies but also protected privileged and sensitive information from disclosure.

“That is why independent and autonomous information commissions are established under right to information laws to ensure that information likely to cause damage to national security, privacy of individuals, economic interests and other such matters is protected from disclosure,” the CRTI statement said.

Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2016

Tale of two bills

ALTHOUGH citizens are constitutionally guaranteed access to information held by the government in matters of public importance, it seems that the centre, in cahoots with the bureaucracy, seeks to ensure through legislation that people remain clueless about critical information.

The Right of Access to Information (RAI) and the Right to Information (RTI) bills, approved by the federal cabinet and Senate respectively, provide interesting insights into how Pakistan’s legislation is carried out. A comparative analysis shows how the Senate’s bill, developed by politicians in consultation with experts, is far better than the cabinet’s bill, developed in consultation with the federal bureaucracy.

Sharing as much information in the public’s interest as possible and protecting sensitive information from disclosure are not mutually exclusive.

One bill upholds the right to know; the other to suppress it.

However, the RAI bill sacrifices principles of public interest in favour of perceived notions about national interest. Ironically, the bill is modelled on the structurally flawed and ineffective Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002, which it seeks to repeal.

In fact, the bill is so flawed that it is better understood as legislation seeking to privilege and protect information rather than to facilitate citizens accessing it. Whereas the RTI bill contains one clearly defined short list of exempted information and declares the rest as public information, the RAI bill contains three lists.

The first list contains a limited number of records to be shared and the second contains records given blanket exemption from disclosure. The third list contains exceptions under which public bodies could deny access to requested data.

A key principle of effective right to information legislation is that information should be shared if its disclosure outweighs possible harm. For this, effective laws empower commissions to apply ‘harm tests’ and see the exempted information through the prism of public interest.

The RAI bill, however, empowers the government to give blanket exemptions to any record it deems unfit for disclosure. In contrast, the proposed Pakistan Information Commission is not empowered to instruct public agencies to disclose information to the public. In this scheme of things, the likely harm to national interest, as perceived by public officials, will always trump the right of citizens to access information of public importance.

It goes to the credit of members of the Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting that they not only developed comprehensive legislation through public consultation but were also able to reach political consensus on the unanimously approved RTI bill. Meanwhile, the government entrusted the task of preparing the draft RAI bill to the bureaucracy and, as a result, there was no public consultation on an issue as important as this.

Furthermore, there is no longer political consensus on this issue; Senator Farhatullah Babar has said that the RAI bill will be opposed in the Senate. It is unfortunate that the federal government has decided to sacrifice political consensus on RTI legislation at the altar of the whims and wishes of federal bureaucracy.

In his judgement on ‘memogate’, then Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja wrote: “Major events in our history in the past six decades since 1947 have included the dismemberment of the country in 1971 and the murder of one incumbent and one former prime minister of Pakistan. We have witnessed the extraordinary case of those in the seats of governance in December 1971 informing us that all was going well in East Pakistan even after the surrender of forces in Dhaka.

“The results of probes into such events have almost invariably been withheld from the people of Pakistan or, at times, selectively disclosed. The people in quest of the truth have mostly been left with conjectures, rumours and half truths. Concealment of information has, in turn, led to a distorted history of the country and to a destabilising division in the polity.”

If the RTI bill is enacted into law, it will represent a paradigm shift — Pakistan’s citizens will finally be able to access information of public importance hitherto denied to them.

On the other hand, if the RAI bill gets through both houses of parliament, things will remain the same and citizens will have to stay contented with conjectures and half-truths.

If the federal government is at all serious about facilitating its citizens’ right to access information, it ought to adopt the Senate’s RTI bill.

The will of the people is manifested in legislation through laws enacted by their elected representatives and not by laws drafted by bureaucrats.

The writer is a rights activist.


Federal Govt’s RTI draft law termed weakest in South Asia

Canada-based institute gives it 97/150 marks against Senate body draft that got 147/150 marks

ISLAMABAD: Tall claims apart, the PML-N government has decided not to walk the talk on the much-awaited Right to Information draft law recently approved by the cabinet.

The ruling party that had promised to produce the best law in the world has delivered one of the worst. It will be the weakest RTI law in South Asia, according to the Center for Law and Democracy (CLD), a Canada-based research institute that does ranking of transparency legislation in the world.

The information being promised through this draft law is already public and anything beyond that has been left on the discretion of bureaucracy to decide how to block ‘in public interest.’ Copy of the draft available with The News indicates that radical alterations have been made in the law that was unanimously finalized by the Senate Standing Committee on Information.

The modified version, now approved by the cabinet, has striking resemblance with the good-for-nothing RTI legislation that has been in practice since 2002 when promulgated by Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Experts on RTI legislations, who examined this bill, have ranked it among the weakest laws of the world. The Canada-based CLD has given it 97 marks, out of 150, in comparison with Senate Committee’s draft that scored 147 marks from the same organization.

Center for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), an Islamabad-based organization working on RTI, has offered only 86 marks to this cabinet-approved bill and gave a detailed analysis of its shortcomings. Its score for the Senate bill was 145, out of 150.

One of the key measures to check the effectiveness of RTI law is the measure taken to ensure maximum disclosure of public information. The government-approved draft has no clearly and narrowly drawn list of the exempted information. Instead, there are three different lists containing categories of information as is in the case of the existing law, making it hard to let the requesters get information by any means.

The laws in KP and Punjab, considered great pieces of legislation, have narrowly defined the exempted information whereas this law drafted for implementation at federal level has gone to an extent of separately defining ‘public record’ in section 6, and ‘exclusion of record’ in section 7 that goes on describing that ‘any other record which the Federal Government may, in public interest exclude from the purview of this Act, will also be refused.

There are many instances where the requesters have been refused information under the existing law in the name of ‘public interest.’ This is in addition to the lists given in the draft bill of ‘records that can be shared and records that can’t be shared and then certain types of information, if contained in these records, will not be shared.

On the other hand, the draft earlier approved by the Senate committee contained only one clearly and narrowly drawn list of information exempt from disclosure and declared the rest of the information to be made public. The intended objective was to ensure maximum disclosure, a purpose defeated by the government-approved law.

The newly drafted law doesn’t offer any right to the requester to inspect documents being granted lest he is provided the unwanted details. The Senate committee law had protected the requester’s right to inspect.

Another measure that judges the efficacy of an RTI law is the enforcement mechanism. The draft law though promises an information commission with powers of civil judge to enforce its directives, it is vague about the composition of the commission. It says that commissioners would be picked from legal fraternity, civil society activists with understanding of RTI and bureaucracy.

However, there is no provision to declare that whether there will be one from each section of society or all three can be picked from one place, raising suspicions that bureaucrats will be given the task to block information instead of ensuring its provision.

The News

RTI and citizens: Emerging trends

The process of filing information requests under the Right to Information laws should be easy and cost-effective
One of the core principles of Right to Information (RTI) legislation is that the process of filing information requests should be easy and cost-effective. The logic behind this principle is to facilitate citizens in exercising their right to information.

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