Friday March 01, 2024

PIC lifts the lid on Toshakhana secrets

September 30, 2020

ISLAMABAD: A PTI MNA Uzma Riaz posted a question last year through the National Assembly Secretariat to the Cabinet Division. She asked whether her party’s government has any intention to conduct an audit of the inventory of gifts/items kept at Toshakhana. She was denied information on the grounds that it was classified.

Response to the MQM’s Senator Ateeq Sheikh wasn’t different when he sought details of the gifts received by prime ministers, ministers and others from foreign dignitaries and deposited in Toshakhana. Before these two parliamentarians, an investigative journalist tried his luck in 2014 using Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and inquired about details of gifts Mohammad Mian Soomro received during his stint as acting president. He was also denied.

Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) has of late lifted the lid on secrecy of these gifts as it dismissed the Cabinet Division’s plea that the record under question is classified. In addition, it ordered not only to declassify but also upload the record on the website of Toshakhana which is more than 20-year old. The Commission took up this matter when, Waseem Elahi, knocked at its door as an ordinary citizen to lodge a complaint that the Cabinet Division refused him the information.

Waseem sought a complete list of items/gifts in the possession of Toshakhana, the names of donors and recipients, the value of gifts, their present whereabouts and details of complaints and subsequent inquiries regarding theft/loss of items, their misappropriation/embezzlement conducted and concluded. As the Commission demanded a reply of the Cabinet Division, the answer it furnished was quite amusing.

“It is to clarify that the requested information is sensitive as gifts are exchanged between the Heads of States and Heads of Governments to give personal touch to inter-state relations. Disclosure of such information could create media hype and result in unwarranted stories, thus potentially damaging the interest of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations and jeopardising inter-state relations. In view of sensitive nature, the record pertains to Toshakhana has been declared classified by the Cabinet Division with the directions of the Prime Minister's Office,” was the reply.

The Commission didn’t buy the explanation. This “personal touch” to inter-state relations through such exchanges, the Commission opined, is a normal practice but the relations between two states are dictated by common interests. “In short, it is a change in the shared common interests between two states, and not the exchange of gifts for personal touch between Heads of States and Heads of Governments which has any qualitative impact on inter-state relations,” observed three-member Commission presided by Mohammad Azam. Information Commissioners Zahid Abdullah and Fawad Malik were two other members.

It is not the disclosure of information, the Commission further remarked, that create media hypes but “the opacity and secretive ways of running the affairs of the government breed corruption and damage interests of the people of Pakistan and not the media stories based on certified information.” An observation by former chief justice of Pakistan Jawwad S. Khawaja regarding the role of rumors, conjectures and half-truths in distorting history which he made while taking up a constitutional petition also formed part of the Commission’s proceeding which said that citizens of Pakistan have been disserved by non-inclusive governance paradigm where information critical to them has been withheld from them. “The people in quest of the truth have mostly been left with conjectures, rumors and half-truths. Concealment of information has, in turn led to a distorted history of the country and to a destabilising division in the polity. This paradigm has shifted through the recent incorporation of Article 19A in the Constitution,” read an excerpt from Justice Khawaja’s order.

It is not certified information but absence of certified information that contributes to ‘media hype’ and resulted in ‘unwarranted stories’, creating trust-deficit between citizens and public institutions, remarked the Commission. “Certified requested information will dispel rumors about the reporting of the gifts to ‘Toshakhana’ by the public officials and their retention price and which elected representative or public official retained which gift at what price.” The Cabinet Division’s plea of keeping it classified was also dismissed on the grounds that it pertains to public functions and not related to the privacy of public office holders.

In its order, the Commission not only directed the provision of information to the complainant, Waseem Elahi, within ten working days, it also ordered the Cabinet Division to declassify and make public all the records of Toshakhana which is more than 20-year-old. The Cabinet Division was further directed to put contact details of the designated Public Information Officers (PIOs) on its website as required under Section 5 (1) (h) of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017, and proactively share through the website all categories of information mentioned in Section 5 of the Act and submit the compliance report to the Commission by October 15.