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September 3, 2013

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Compared to KP, federal Information Bill is a tame, vague effort to deny info

Compared to KP, federal Information Bill is a tame, vague effort to deny info

ISLAMABAD: The PML-N government has produced a toothless Freedom of Information (FOI) law draft, subsequently approved by a Senate Committee. Other than providing a weak enforcement mechanism, it has proposed punishment for those who go to appeal on ‘malicious grounds’ against the departments which deny information.
The draft law has treated parliament as a sacred cow, denying the public right to seek any information about it.On the contrary, the judiciary, which has a special status in the Constitution, can be approached for information about its working.
Compared to an exemplary RTI law introduced by the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the draft prepared by the federal government is extremely restrictive in scope, doesn’t prescribe punishment against officers denying information and offers no protection to whistle-blowers, its reading indicates.
The KP law has been rated by the World Bank’s experts as among the three top RTI laws being practised at the global level. The PTI government had consulted international RTI experts during the course of drafting the law in order to make it more comprehensive and close to perfection, whereas the federal government’s draft seems to be the brainchild of the bureaucracy and politicians who are keen to keep the culture of secrecy intact.
The federal FOI law draft is a replica of the one introduced by the Musharraf government in 2002, introduced under donors’ pressure and through a presidential ordinance, that was toothless like the PML-N government’s draft to be tabled as a multi-party bill in the Senate for approval.
The draft was designed by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and produced before the Senate Standing Committee constituting representatives of the PML-N, PPP and PML-Q, among others.
As the bill was approved by the Senate Committee on August 28, it had followed talk of the Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed, who said the government believed “in consensus and took decision after taking on board all stakeholders.”
He was taking credit of a draft bill that would change nothing on the ground as it carries weak pro-active disclosure provisions, offers vague definitions of ‘information’ and national security in addition to a complicated process of filing information requests that is tantamount to discouraging them.
Contrary to the KP’s RTI law that acknowledges public right to know as its name implies, the FOI draft approved by the Senate committee suggests through its name as if people are being granted freedom to ask information as if that is not their right.
While the KP’s law neither asks for any fee to apply for information nor one needs any prescribed form to furnish request, the FOI draft of the federal government has asked for both making it complicated in an apparent bid to discourage them.Likewise, the KP’s law promises an independent and powerful information commission to take action against the departments denying public access to information, the federal government’s draft law has made federal ombudsman as appellate authority to take up complaints as was the case in the FOI ordinance introduced by the Musharraf government.
The ombudsman does not have any judicial authority and can only recommend that is not mandatory for the offending departments to comply with.
Again, the KP’s law does not require an applicant to declare his intentions for seeking any particular information, the federal government’s draft calls into question the intentions especially if somebody dares to go in appeal against the government department denying information.
The Article 19 (2) of the FOI draft reads: “Where a complaint instituted is found to be malicious, frivolous, vexatious, the complaint may be dismissed by Mohtasib (Ombudsman) and fine may be imposed on the complainant up to an amount not exceeding ten thousands rupees, after providing him the opportunity of being heard.”
Inclusion of this provision means discouraging an applicant to go into appeal against a departmental officer denying information. While honouring recommendations of the ombudsman is not mandatory for the department denying information, punishing the appellant with ‘malicious’ intent is suggested in the draft law.
Instead of incorporating any provision forcing the concerned department to provide information within the prescribed time period of 20 days, the Article 13 (4) rather advises the applicant to file a review application to the principal officer of the public body before going to the ombudsman, a practice apparently intended to lengthen the process and discourage the applicant with the warning not to dare again.
While the KP’s RTI law allows seeking information of the executives, legislature and courts, the federal government’s law has exempted Parliament from this category, not though the courts, according to its article 4 (2). Law should also have included autonomous or semi-autonomous institutions, and private institutions, which receive or have received in the past official funding, subsidies, amenity plots, tax benefits or any other support.
The federal government law has excluded a lot of information in the name of ‘national security’ that has been vaguely defined. Article 4 (2) of the draft law reads: “National security” means and includes the matters pertaining to the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof.”

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