The right to information | Dawn

This article was published in Dawn on February 20, 2016 and is available at the following link

AFTER the new governments of KP and Punjab passed their respective, internationally acclaimed Right to Information (RTI) laws and established their independent information commissions in 2013, it was only natural to expect Sindh and Balochistan, and the federation to replace their restrictive freedom of information laws with more progressive RTI laws.

Unfortunately, this has not happened so far. Although the two provinces and the federation have repeatedly expressed their intention to introduce new RTI laws in their respective domains, action on this has been extremely slow and appears stalled in some cases.

International experience indicates a strong link between effective RTI laws and good governance. RTI laws and the associated institutions have, therefore, become a symbol of a society’s commitment to good governance. This also explains the growing popularity of RTI laws the world over. Only 19 countries had RTI laws before 1995. Today, 107 countries have RTI laws and most of them have dedicated institutions to promote their effective implementation and to hear complaints against executive delay or denial of information to citizens.

International experience indicates a strong link between effective RTI laws and good governance.

The same kind of relationship seems to prevail in Pakistan. Sindh, which, according to several surveys and assessments, does not do so well in the context of good governance, has the weakest legal framework and implementation of the right to information in Pakistan. Its Freedom of Information Act, 2006, though has not been operationalised as the provincial government has failed to frame the required rules for the last 10 years.

In a recent score card of the four provinces and the federation, Sindh scored the least with a dismal 24pc score. The federal government’s position is not much better; it scored 24pc and was placed fourth among the five governments. Balochistan was third with 29pc. KP and Punjab which have promulgated better laws have scored 73pc and 65pc and in the first and second position respectively.

It is a vicious cycle in which poor governance obstructs the introduction of better RTI laws and the lack of effective RTI laws in turn impedes good governance. It is time the two provinces and the federation broke this vicious cycle by promulgating new RTI laws and established independent information commissions as has been done in the case of Punjab and KP.

Recently, Pakistan’s acclaimed draft of the federal RTI bill has shown some progress towards the eventual passage after two years of not being discussed by the federal cabinet. Recently, the federal Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage announced that the government had constituted a five-member committee to propose revisions to the federal draft RTI bill in the light of the current security environment. In fact, there is already an exception clause in the proposed bill preventing disclosure of information that legitimately harms national security. However, many countries in the world have thought it necessary to enact further measures to prevent unauthorised disclosure of information harmful to national security. India, which is supposed to have the third-best law in the world, has granted immunity to 18 civilian and military agencies performing intelligence and law-enforcement functions.

America has an expansive body of legislation limiting authorised disclosure and preventing unauthorised disclosure of information classified to protect national security, defined broadly to include certain aspects of foreign affairs as well. Even Canada, a country with arguably lower threat perceptions than Pakistan, has exceptions covering certain types of intelligence, military and diplomatic information.

Some quarters may feel that the current clause preventing the disclosure of information harmful to national security is inadequate and that this leaves much to the discretion of the proposed information commission.

At the same time, blanket immunity for certain institutions preventing any authorised disclosure of information pertinent to national security is not optimal either. Such immunity does not prevent unauthorised disclosures, even if there are strict penalties for officials found guilty of such an act.

The Official Secrets Act was (and still is) in place in Pakistan when the Hamoodur Rehman and Abbottabad Commission reports were leaked.

The US had a number of laws, including the Counterintelligence and Security Enhancement Act, 1994, the Espionage Act of 1917, and Executive Order 13526 in place when the information leaked by Edward Snowden hit the airwaves.

Our policymakers must realise that citizens of the information age have developed an appetite for information on the performance of public institutions. This demand is likely to be met through unauthorised disclosures if the legislation governing information pertinent to national security restricts authorised disclosures absolutely.

The debate on giving or keeping back information pertinent to national security may, therefore, continue but it should not be allowed to obstruct an early passage of an effective RTI law even if that law has maximalist exceptions with regard to the security sector.

A vast majority of the public is interested in information on subjects other than just security and their right to information should not be curbed because of conflicting perceptions on what should be allowed to be disclosed regarding national security. Laws are dynamic documents and as the country develops some kind of a consensus on the extent of information that can be disclosed regarding the security sector, the RTI law can be further amended.

We must realise that the passage of the federal RTI bill will be the first step in introducing a comprehensive system governing the disclosure of information. People on both sides of the debate must push for a system that minimises the discretion of officials and establishes clearly aligned sets of rules governing the disclosure and protection of information.

It is now time for the passage of a progressive, effective and international class RTI act, not only at the federal level but also in the remaining two provinces, even as an open discussion between policymakers and civil society continues on exactly how this system will balance concerns of the public and the executive.

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