Friday May 24, 2024

PIC orders declassification of all reports more than 20 years old

By Ansar Abbasi
September 01, 2021

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) on Monday issued an order to declassify all government reports that are more than 20 years old -- including those authored by commissions and committees -- and directed the Interior Ministry to take steps to make them public. In its order, the Commission reminded the government that the RTI Act states that all reports that are more than 20 years old should be made public. The PIC held that such reports cannot be shrouded in secrecy for eternity.

The PIC has also settled the issue of how records are to be classified and declassified. It said, “While all federal public bodies are required to proactively publish all finalised reports, some of these reports, or some parts thereof, may be exempted from disclosure on legitimate security or other concerns. However, these concerns need to be articulated through the recorded reasons of the minister in-charge and submitted before this commission to determine that the harm from disclosure outweighs public interest. Moreover, there is no blanket exemption to any finalised report. This commission is of the view that a public body cannot deny access to any finalised report because parts of records/ information of the requested information fall within the scope of exceptions mentioned in Section 16 of the Act. If the public interest warrants the disclosure of a report, though some of its part may contain information which should be exempted from disclosure on reasonable grounds, those parts can be severed and the rest should be made public as required under Section 16 (1) (i) of the Act.”

The commission observed, “George Santayana rightly stated that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That is why, like other nations, our honourable parliamentarians have included the provision to declassify records after 20 years so that the nation could remember its past, discuss and debate decisions taken in a certain context by politicians and state functionaries.”

It added that good governance in the country can only be ensured if we graduate from the post-colonial era where secrecy has been a norm and provision of information an exception to the modern era where running the business of the country is conducted in a manner that transparency becomes a norm and secrecy an exception.

“Therefore, it is the solemn responsibility of those running the affairs of the state to create a balance between protecting information from disclosure, on justifiable ground through recorded reasons, and, proactively sharing of information in the public interest which has hitherto been kept shrouded in the veil of secrecy,” reads the order.

The Ministry of Interior is directed by the Commission to: “(a) Take steps to record reasons by the minister in-charge, as required under Section 7 (f) of the Act, to exclude budget items that need to be classified and place recorded reasons before this commission, to ensure implementation of Section 5 (1) (g) of the Act; (b) share information about the total number of classified reports, along with the title of each report and the date on which each report was classified; (c) Initiate process of declassification of all reports, including those that are more than 20 years old, or, parts thereof, as dictated by Section 5 (1) (i), Section 7 (f), Section 16 (1) (i) and Section 16 (1) (k) of the Act; and (d) Ensure availability on its website of the methods for seeking information from the public body under the Act and the schedule of costs, developed by the Pakistan Information Commission, (available on the commission’s website) for seeking information from federal public bodies.”

The Commission also sought the compliance report pertaining to the implementation of the above directions by September 30, 2021.