Pakistan’s Constitution since 2010 recognises the right to information as a fundamental right. Yet, the legislature has yet to implement this constitutional clause and enact a law that is comprehensive and brings about the much-needed openness and transparency in executive decisions. A sub-committee of the Senate standing committee on information and broadcasting recently circulated a draft that seems to be a step in the right direction
The proposed RTI Bill is a welcome step towards improving access to information for the citizens of the country. The Bill proposes that every ministry, department and attached division of the federal government will appoint a person to provide required information to anyone who requests it. If no official is appointed, the responsibility lies with the secretary of the department or ministry. The appointed person would be bound by law to respond to the request for information within 21 days. In the event that information is denied, a reason must be provided, which can be challenged by the requester in the court of law.
While the Bill aims to make official records part of public records, it is constrained by the long list of documents it declares ‘off limits’. Most notably, information concerning defence planning, national security, law enforcement, investigative reports and tax records are exceptions. In addition, meeting records of banking companies, the Council of Common Interest, the National Economic Council and cabinet meetings will not be made public. The Bill also prohibits the release of any information, which may lead to hindrance to fair trials, violate intellectual property, endanger the life and property of a citizen, or cause damage to Pakistan’s interests internationally. Much ambiguity and loopholes can be detected in the proposed legislation that may enable the powerful bureaucracy to deny information.
Pakistan should learn from India and Bangladesh where exceptions have been reduced. A federal law will not be enough to improve transparency. Provinces need to enact similar laws and there is a Punjab bill pending for enactment. It is hoped that the PML-N would make a fresh start and enact the bill in its stronghold, thereby setting an example for other provinces to follow.