Critics Score Emerging Pakistani FOI Legislation

21 June 2013

A developing Pakistani freedom of information law is getting poor initial reviews.

A Senate subcommittee recently produced a long-awaiting national bill (text). (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

Zahid Abdullah, Coordinator Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI), sharply criticized the bill in a statement.  “There is a long negative list … and a small positive list of the information one can apply for,” he wrote. “The draft law does not contain any definition of information and more energy has been spent in spelling out categories of information a citizen cannot access through a petition as six sections of the bill deal with the ‘negative list,’ “ according to Abdullah.

CRTI also faulted the merging national bill for relying on the Federal Ombudsman instead of establishing an independent information commission.

He urged the Senate sub-committee to a bill approved by the state of Punjab cabinet in March that was developed with input from the civil society. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) That bill is still pending.

An editorial in Pakistan Today says the approval of the draft bill “might be considered a welcome step” buts goes on to say that “a closer scrutiny of the draft reveals that it offers very little in terms of transparency and public scrutiny of government functions.”

Going into more detail, the editorial continues:

The bill stipulates that every ministry/division, department or attached department of the federal government should appoint a focal person to provide the information sought by a requester. Under the law, these designated officials would be bound to provide the information or a reply within 21 days. In case an official denies the requester access to the information, he or she would be required to give reasons for doing so in writing to the former. The requester can then approach a court against the official’s decision. The bill also stipulates that all official documents become part of public records after 20 years,

Nonetheless, a long list of areas have been declared as out of public domain. These not only include defence national security’ matters but also the records of banking companies, Council of Common Interest, National Economic Council and related committees, and even cabinet meetings. Similarly, all internal working documents of a public body and management of the national economy will remain classified under the proposed legislation until a final decision has been taken and notified by the public body.

Other areas that are supposed to remain out of bound for citizens include matters pertaining to law enforcement and public safety, investigative reports undertaken by agencies for the prevention and detection of crime, information obtained or received in the course of any investigation, information about the existence or non-existence or identity of a confidential source in relation to the enforcement of any law and records regarding the collection and assessment of taxes.

Any information the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person, prejudice the fair trial of a person or the impartial adjudication of a particular case before any court or tribunal, or violate any intellectual property rights will also be kept out of the public domain, as will any information pertaining to scientific or technical research the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to expose the organisation concerned or project to a disadvantage. Another ‘exemption list’, given in clauses 14-18 of the RTI bill, includes matters relating to international relations, economic affairs and privacy.

This raises significant questions regarding the possibility of any kind of ‘open government’ in the presence of so many restrictions of the right to information. This also means that enough loopholes exist the legislation that could easily be exploited by any government official looking to evade public scrutiny. The right to information is increasingly been seen as fundamental to functioning democracies. Now that Pakistan has finally made the first democratic transition, the question remains whether the state will ever truly be responsible to its people.

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