PAKISTAN: Access to Information Advocates Criticize Proposed Freedom of Information Bill

17 July 2008

The Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (CRCP) this week held a consultation on the draft Freedom of Information Bill of 2008, which is likely to soon be tabled for consideration by the legislature. The CRCP, which has been working for to strengthen the freedom of information (FOI) framework in Pakistan since 1998, expressed reservations about the proposed FOI Bill in Preliminary Comments issued earlier this month. In particular, the CRCP has observed that the bill does not offer any improvements to the existing institutional mechanism for processing information requests and hearing complaints, and the new bill also removes an important whistleblower protection provision.

The recent consultation gathered views on the proposed FOI bill from important stakeholders, including international experts. Many of the participants echoed the concerns of the CRCP that under the new bill, the procedures for accessing information would continue to be burdensome for many Pakistanis. The participants also expressed concerns that the bill lacks a public interest test, does not clarify the status of provincial FOI laws or the application of the proposed bill to local governments, and fails to mandate a time limit for public bodies to respond to information requests.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an international NGO based in New Delhi that advocates for access to information, submitted preliminary recommendations for strengthening the FOI Bill as well as Responses to Queries from the CRCP. According to CHRI, the proposed FOI bill represents an improvement over Pakistan’s 2002 Freedom of Information Ordinance, but nonetheless does not meet international best practice standards in several areas. In particular, the definitions of “information” under the law are too restrictive, completely barring disclosure several broad categories of records, including records of internal deliberations and Cabinet papers and records relating to law enforcement and defense.  Other exemptions in the bill, including for information about international relations, are too broad and the bill lacks any public interest override provision. The law also limits the right of access to Pakistani citizens and creates other procedural hurdles to obtaining information.

Links

Noor Aftab, “Implementation after consultations demanded,” The News (Islamabad), July 15, 2008.

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