Right to know faces another blow in 2016

Umar Cheema
Right to know faces another blow in 2016

ISLAMABAD: Another year passes without witnessing the passage of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government that promised the world’s best law on transparency has practically backed out of it.

An RTI draft law cleared by the cabinet this year is good for nothing. It will promote the culture of secrecy instead of eliminating it. The passing of this year is rather at a pessimistic note. Transparency initiatives taken in 2014 have been reversed in 2016.

The 2015 had expired amid the promises of enacting the RTI law prepared in 2014 by the Senate Standing Committee on Information. International experts had reviewed this draft and declared it the best legislation in the world only if adopted.

The government dilly-dallied on it by flirting with different ideas to improve it further. The information minister and secretary information held out assurances at different forums that the Senate committee-approved draft would be cleared from the cabinet. Each time they would promise to have done that “in the next cabinet meeting”.

Pakistan thus entered 2016 hoping to see translating dreams into reality. However, the developments followed left no room for optimism. Instead of improving the draft already finalised by the Senate committee and declared the best by the international experts, a cabinet committee was assigned to review it. 

The best law was eventually converted into the worst by this committee and subsequently approved by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the cabinet.

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 seen by ‘The News’ indicates that radical alterations have been made in the draft law that was unanimously finalised 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 the 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 the Senate Committee’s draft that scored 147 marks from the same organisation.

The Center for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), an Islamabad-based organisation 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 the 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 mean.

The laws in the KP and Punjab, considered fine pieces of legislation, have narrowly defined the exempted information whereas this law drafted for implementation at the 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 commission. It says that commissioners would be picked from legal fraternity, civil society activists with knowledge of RTI and bureaucracy.

However, there is no provision to declare 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.

—Originally published in The News