Punjab FOI Bill Proposed, Critic Voices Reservations

31 December 2012

The government of Punjab has prepared freedom of information legislation, according to media reports, but one early reaction suggests that much information would be exempted from disclosure.

The “bureaucracy” of the Pakistani province has finalized the draft, according to a Dec. 21 article in The Dawn.

“The draft was finalised during a meeting of the administrative secretaries which was presided over by Chief Secretary Nasir Khosa. The chief secretary decided to send the draft to the chief minister for approval and tabling it in the Punjab Assembly for adoption,” The Dawn reported. A draft of the bill has not yet reached FOI activists in Pakistan consulted by FreedomInfo.org.

The Dawn article suggests than revisions are likely, saying that the list of exceptions “causes confusion,” and will be revised by the “law department.”

Reporting on the details of the draft law, The Dawn said:

According to the draft law, (sharing) information means any information providing unit’s constitution, structure and official activities and includes any memo, book, design, map, contract, representation, pamphlet, brochure, order, notification, document, plans, letter, report, accounts statement, project proposal, photograph, audio, video, drawing, film, any instrument prepared through electronic process, machine-readable documents and any other documentary material regardless of its physical form or characteristics.

The information that will not be shared includes (if declared secret) summaries and notes, office noting, working papers, minutes of the meetings, inquiry proceedings and reports, merit list for recruitment before finalisation/approval by the competent authority.

Legal opinion or advice tendered by the Law Department, Public Prosecution Department, Solicitor’s Department or Office of Advocate General, Punjab.

Annual and supplementary budget statements along with explanatory memoranda, all documents relating to the preparation of the budgets, taxation proposals, Finance Bill and budget speech before presentation of the Annual and Supplementary Budgets to the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab.

War Book, daily situation and intelligence reports, threat alerts, security and emergency plans/instructions and reports on and matters relating to defence planning or strategic installations.

Information relating to movement of VVIPs [very very important persons], foreigner VIPs, prisoners/persons on threat list, matter under investigation, including forensic reports, sensitive equipment of law-enforcement agencies and Civil Defence high security prisons and barracks, storage and transportation of arms and explosives, terrorists and sectarian elements and militant organisations, troops and their members, Indus Water Treaty and water accord.

The National Finance Commission Award before announcement of the award, and matters pertaining to the Council of Common Interests and the National Economic Council before approval of a proposal.

Designs and layouts of bridges, prisons, barrages, headworks or any other strategic installations including digital data.

Reserve price for purposes of auction of any material, stores, produce or property, personal evaluation reports of the employee, audit observations until the appropriate forum has taken a decision in accordance with rules, registration certificates issued to a factory under section 20(j), any information classified as secret by the Federal Government or other agencies under any law.

Information Commission Would Be Created

A five-person Punjab Information Commission would enforce the law, the panel to be made up of three former (senior) government servants and two retired high court judges.

The Dawn article says that requesters would be charged a fee. Requests would have to be approved or denied with reasons in writing within 21 working days. “Information related to life and liberty will be provided within 48 hours,” The Dawn said.

Destruction of records could lead to prison sentences of up to two years, fines, or both.

Exclusions Called Too Extensive

Gulmina Bilal Ahmad, in a commentary published in The Daily Times, said the draft is a “very welcome step.” Ahmad is a development consultant and writes regular columns for the newspaper.

She cautioned, “The Punjab government, unfortunately, chose to make an underpass for itself to speed away from transparency that citizens’ access to information would provide.”

“The ‘negative list’ that consists of information that will not be provided is unfortunately not very short,” according to Ahmad. Including in this list information about the Indus Water Treaty and Water Accord “baffles the mind,” she  wrote, continuing:

Also in the list are summaries and notes, office noting, working papers, minutes of meetings, inquiry proceedings and reports. This exclusion is particularly problematic as the information gap is usually to be blamed on the very important ‘office notings’ that officials do on a file. The official notings were excluded in the federal legislation, which was copied by Balochistan in 2005 and Sindh in 2006. It is pertinent to mention that in India, all certifications and notings can be accessed by citizens under the Freedom of Information law. It is unfortunate that in spite of active engagement with the Punjab government on the issue, in 2012 they have drafted a bill that reflects the inadequacies of 2001.

The Punjab government insists that the draft has been prepared after “studying various country models and consultations with civil society organisations.” One wishes that during all the studying of other country models, the Punjab government had studied the Indian law that not only includes certificates and notings, but also has a provision for information to be provided within 48 hours for urgent requests.

As for engagement with civil society organisations (CSOs), the Punjab government forgets that CSOs have for the past 10 years (will be 11 in three days) engaged with the bureaucracy to draft a law that: (a) Does not require a citizen to state why she/he requires the information; (b) Right to inspect records before they are provided or photocopied. This is to safeguard against the bureaucracy overloading the citizen with paper and not the relevant information. (c) Provision of urgent information requests and the like, lamented earlier; (d) Inclusion of notings and all such information within the ambit of the law.

Lastly, I have a word about the implementation. The draft law states that a Punjab Information Commission is to be formed that would consist of three retired government servants and two judges. Will it be too radical to suggest that in the commission we replace a government servant and judge by two Right to Information (RTI) activists or RTI civil society organisations’ representatives? Call it scepticism, but after years of serving in government, the mentality of a government servant is not prone to proactive disclosure of information. Inclusion of RTI activists in the commission might give it the necessary buoyancy needed at this stage.

It is also proposed that the commission would develop in English and Urdu a user’s manual for the citizen to understand how to access information. This is very positive and necessary and something that has already been done by civil society organisations. In the last 12 years, there have been at least 300 workshops on what is freedom/right to information and countless manuals have been prepared on the subject. The Punjab government itself has participated in a number of such activities and it is aware of the existence of such manuals. Instead of spending time and financial resources in developing manuals, the focus should be on robust legislation and implementation.

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