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Editorial

February 17, 2017

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Our right to know

Our right to know

The public’s right to know what is being done by the government in its name is enshrined in the 18th Amendment as a fundamental right but the legislation underpinning it – the Freedom of Information Ordinance – originally passed in the Musharraf era, serves more to shield the government than reveal its abuses. For years, there have been failed attempts to pass a stronger bill. In 2013, the Senate approved the Right to Information Act but it was allowed to lapse when the PML-N government didn’t introduce it in the National Assembly. Now, a Senate standing committee has once again voted in favour of a strong RTI bill. If this RTI bill is passed and implemented, it has the potential to lead to a more empowered citizenry. Unlike the current Freedom of Information ordinance, this law will not allow the state to use national security as an excuse to suppress information that reveals corruption or human rights abuses. The defence ministry had wanted the right to issue an NOC before any RTI legislation is adopted but the Senate committee rightly rejected that suggestion as it would only be used to weaken the legislation. The most important clause in the RTI bill may be the stipulation that all information on ‘missing’ people must be provided within three days of a request. After the still unexplained disappearances of five activists and the mystery surrounding their reappearance, this demand has attained greater urgency and must be a part of the final bill.

The commission which would be responsible for adjudicating requests for information will comprise a bureaucrat, a judge and a member of civil society, and punishments are stipulated if the commission itself ends up suppressing or destroying information. Whistleblowers will be given protection and the public will have a right to view CCTV footage in open areas. The end result is a strong bill that would – if followed – make it more difficult for the state to break the law with impunity. But there is still some way to go before the RTI bill becomes law. The government has repeatedly delayed bringing an RTI bill to the cabinet and there is no guarantee the PML-N-led National Assembly will pass a bill proposed by the Senate. The final bill could be watered down to an extent that it no longer resembles the RTI bill approved by the standing committee. Ultimately, the state also has a long history of ignoring laws it finds inconvenient and it would be up to the commission to push back if that is the case. There is still a long way to go before the RTI bill is in effect and functioning as it should but at least a belated start has been made.

 

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