A law that will ensure secrecy instead of transparency

ISLAMABAD: The newly-drafted Right to Information Bill tabled in the Senate defeats the purpose of its formation, thus, it turns out to be a great disappointment coming from the politicians championing the cause of democracy and the people’s right to know.

Other than listing out the items exempted from public record, the law has also left at the discretion of the government to decide which of the remaining public information it wants to conceal instead of arming the information commission with the authority to decide on such matters. So any information considered useful in the public eye will likely be declared harmful by the government.

The bill titled the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 appears to be a fine piece of legislation in its outlook but it will be ferocious in dealing with the information requests. The draft legislation is set to consolidate the secrecy regime instead of breaking this time-tested practice used for hiding the misdeeds in the name of public trust.

In its present setting, the draft has received a score of 106 out of 150 from the Canada-based Centre for Law and Democracy that does international ranking of the transparency laws in terms of their efficacy. A draft prepared earlier by the Senate Committee on Information and Broadcasting had won 147 score but the government rejected it and carried out structural changes, bringing it the shape it has been tabled in the Senate. Ironically, these changes were incorporated with the consent of the Senate committee that had prepared the rejected draft.

The Coalition of Right to Information (CRTI), an umbrella body of 52 civil society organisations working on transparency, has expressed its reservations. Among other issues, it has objected to vague and wide classification of the exempted and public information.

“Instead of having one clearly defined shortlist of exempted information and declaring the rest as public information, the Right of Access to Information Bill, 2017 also has separate lists; records that can be shared, records that cannot be shared and records that can be shared but certain types of information, if contained in these records, will not be shared,” the CRTI noted.

A reading of the draft offers instances where the framers of the legislation have ensured that nothing substantial goes into the public domain through this law. In addition to listing out categories of the items exempted from the public disclosure, another category under the title “Exclusion of certain record” has been incorporated in order to widen the exemption list. This is the point where the ministers-in-charge have been empowered to declare as classified they deem inappropriate for disclosure. To record the reason as to why harm from disclosure of a particular information outweighs public interest is only what a minister will have to do, according to Clause 7(f).

“This section makes allowance for protecting information from disclosure in public interest but does not make any allowance for disclosure of information in public interest,” the CRTI noted. As a matter of fact, this harm test clause is incorporated to empower the information commission (appellant body) instead of ministers. The commission after hearing the argument of the government side and that of the information requester decides and orders the provision of demanded details in case the public interest outweighs the harm, if there is any.

If the past practices are any guide, the government can refuse information or declare it classified on ridiculous grounds. The Law Ministry, for example, had turned down an information request asking for the reports of judicial commissions formed between 2008 and 2015. The reason described for refusing this information was that making the reports public will open Pandora’s box.

Providing banking information of any account is also part of the exempted category. Good transparency laws don’t refuse this information as this is about the allocated budget and how it is being spent. Instead of making it proactive disclosure, it has been exempted under the guise of the privacy of a private person who is not under question in this case.

“Only conceivable situations where such information may be treated as exempt are where the accounts may include information about specific security/investigation related expenses and any premature disclosure may enable vested interests to identify recipients or ascertain the direction of investigations and consequently may harm security/investigations,” commented a former information commission official of the Punjab. He said in several cases, the Punjab Information Commission had directed provision of information about the bank accounts when the matter was related to the public money.

The RTI law facilitates citizens in exercise of their right to know. In contrast, the definition of “right of access to information” given in Article 2(12) has offered very limited access. Unlike the provincial laws of KP and Punjab, an applicant under the federal law is not allowed to inspect any work or document, take notes and obtain copy of information in electronic form.

Published in The News

May 23,2017


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