Government is Open in Rhetoric and Secret in Reality

11 March 2015

By Umar Cheema

The author is an investigative reporter for the Pakistani newspaper The News, where this article first appeared March 10.

ISLAMABAD: The PML-N government is determined to promote transparency in rhetoric but has been found building walls of secrecy in reality.

The Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights has denied the citizens’ right to information as an RTI request inquiring details of advertisements released to the media has been refused citing it as classified information.

Information Minister Senator Pervaiz Rashid, who has vowed to introduce a robust RTI law to promote good governance and public accountability, has an additional charge of the Law Ministry.

Earlier, the information request during the PPP government about the lawyers hired by the government and their legal fee was also dismissed on the grounds that it will open Pandora’s Box. The Law Ministry, however, has different laws for the lawmakers as it didn’t see any harm making the same information public when sought by a public representative through the forum of parliament.

Incidentally, these days PPP senators are leading a campaign demanding information from the Supreme Court of Pakistan about the perks offered to former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Senator Farhatullah Babar was reported protesting the denial of information from the apex court saying that public had the right to know.

The Federal Ombudsman is unable to help citizens when it comes to the Law Ministry that is determined to deny access to information, FO orders notwithstanding.Zahid Abdullah, Coordinator of the Coalition of Right to Information, had sent a request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance 2002 asking for the list of advertisements issued by the ministry to the print media from July 2013 to December 2013; funds released for the purpose and criteria governing the allocation of advertisement to different newspapers.

Not only was the information denied, the ministry doesn’t have any focal person to deal with such requests that reflects on its commitment to the public right to know. As Zahid went into appeal to the FO against this refusal, the issue was taken up only to hear from a representative from the ministry that it is among those declared as classified departments.

While hearing the case, Syed Anwar Mehmood, senior Adviser to FO, said that since Section 2(h) of the FOI Ordinance declared all ministries, divisions and attached departments of the federal government as ‘public body’, the ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights also falls in this category; hence. the record of its expenditures in the performance of its duties has also been considered public under Section 7(b). Subsequently, the plea of the ministry was dismissed and directive to release the information was issued last year, but it has not been implemented as yet.

The ministry also made headlines in 2008. Again, it was Zahid Abdullah, who had filed RTI request demanding the list of lawyers engaged by Musharraf government from October 2002 to March 2008 and the fee paid to them. The ministry had refused the request saying it would open Pandora’s Box.

Incidentally, then MNA Begum Nuzhat Siddiqi had submitted the same question in the National Assembly Secretariat demanding the ministry “to show the names of lawyers who pleaded the cases on behalf of the government in the Supreme Court and the total amount of fee paid to them in each case.” The ministry was quick to provide that information to the public representatives earlier denied to public.

The details presented to the National Assembly disclosed that Muhsarraf had hired 23 lawyers who were paid Rs30 million. Wasim Sajjad and Malik Qayyum received Rs8.2 million each whereas Kahlid Ranjha Rs4 million to defend the presidential reference against the then chief justice of Pakistan.

This practice is not limited to the Law Ministry. An RTI request by The News last year to the Privatisation Commission inquiring about the post-privatization mechanism to oversee the implementation of conditions agreed with the owners of privatized entities was denied on the ground that it was not for public consumption.

Incidentally, same question asked by a PPP Senator Saeed Ghani in 2012 was responded saying that no such mechanism existed to begin with.Another RTI request by The News to Federal Public Service Commission met somewhat similar fate. FPSC was asked to provide the names, domicile of the candidates appeared in CSS examination. An accumulated figure was given and detailed information was denied on the grounds that no detailed record was kept as desired by this correspondent. A similar question by a PML-N MNA in 2009 was responded with full details.

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