Pakistan Senate Forms Committee to Study FOI

20 July 2012

Pakistan’s Senate has formed a subcommittee to work with the information ministry to develop freedom of information legislation.

The Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting on July 18 approved establishment of the committee, which will be convened by Senator Farhatullah Babar, with senators Syed Zafar Ali Shah and Daud Khan Achakzai as members.

The subcommittee also will address media issues, according to reports such as one in The Express Tribune.

The development provided hope to FOI activists, but what course the government will take still seems uncertain.

“The government seems to be reluctant in tabling a bill regarding ‘Access to Information’ in the parliament which if passed may totally change the charter of the information ministry, sources privy to this told Pakistan Observer on Tuesday,” the Pakistan Observer stated.

The paper quoted the new subcommittee chairman, Farhatullah Babar  as saying the government will propose to ease  disclosure exemptions for defense and security.”

The Observer reported:

The Senate body headed by Senator Kamil Ali Agha took a serious note during its meeting on Tuesday that why the information ministry was not presenting the bill the parliament and therefore a sub-committee was formed so that it will be tabled there as soon as possible.”

The sources said the proposed law will be more effective in terms of access to information than a similar law which former President Farooq Leghari wanted to introduce in the country but failed to do so in 1997.

The access to information was first provided legal cover through an ordinance promulgated by the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Meraj Khalid in January 1997. Farooq Leghari was the president at that time. However, when Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister, his government did not get the ordinance passed into a law through parliament and the ordinance ultimately lapsed after its four-month validity expired.The bill requires that it should be the first priority in the charter of the information ministry to provide freedom/access of information. The bill was drafted by the ministry in consultation with all stakeholders. “A large number of concerns of all stakeholders have been addressed in the bill,” Babar said.

The Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, (CPDI) commented that mandate of the sub-committee “needs to be expanded as working alone with bureaucracy at Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is likely to compromise citizens’ right to information as our bureaucracy is afflicted with the malaise of dilly-dallying whenever information is sought from government departments under the existing information laws.”

The CPDI recommended wide consultations, saying, “This is vitally important as implementation mechanism envisaged in Sherry Rahman private member bill, the one under consideration of the Committee, is equally ineffective as the one envisaged in Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 which the proposed Sherry Rahman information law seeks to repeal .” CPDI continued:

Realizing the fact that ensuring citizens’ right to information is a specialized job, countries of the region like Bangladesh, Nepal and India have entrusted the task of protecting this right to independent and autonomous information commissions while both Ms. Sherry Rahman  private member bill and Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 entrust this task to Federal Ombudsman, a body specialized in solving mal-administration related issues,  which has proven to be a toothless appellate body as it sees the right to information from narrow prism of mal-administration issue. CPDI urges the Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting to play its role proactively in enacting an effective right to information law which is at par with those enacted in the region through active involvement of journalists and citizens groups working in the area of right to information in the country.

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