Right of Access to Information Bill termed highly restrictive

ISLAMABAD: The Right of Access to Information Bill 2017 moved in the Senate is highly restrictive, like the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, under which journalists as well as citizens will not be able to seek certified information from government departments.

This was stated by members of Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI) at a press conference held at National Press Club on Friday. The CRTI is a consortium of 52 civil society groups working to protect and promote citizens’ right to information.

One of the speakers, Zahid Abdullah, said the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, promulgated by General Pervez Musharraf, did not give proper access to information.

“Though the Charter of Democracy (signed by the PPP and PML-N) promised that the right to information would be ensured by making a new law, we fear that the new bill will not fulfil the promise. There is nothing new in the bill apart from constituting a commission.”

He said even the commission would be helpless as the bill envisages that it (commission) would not be the final authority to provide information.

Civil society representatives say getting certified information from govt depts will not be possible under the bill

“In case of any conflict, the minister of the concerned ministry will decide if the information can be given to the media or a citizen. We believe that the minister will never give such information to the media because they have a habit of stopping information.”

He said the Right of Access to Information Bill 2017 moved in Senate was structurally flawed like the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 it seeks to repeal. Therefore, it should only be enacted after bringing it into harmony with standards of effective right to information legislation.

The Senate Standing Committee on Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage should only approve the bill after taking an input from civil society groups, right to information experts and journalists, he said.

Executive Director Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives Amer Ejaz said the bill falls short of meeting key standards of effective right to information legislation.

He said like the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, the bill violates the key standard of effective right to information legislation which says that there should be one list of exempted information and the rest should be declared public.

He also said the proposed Pakistan Commission on Access to Information was not empowered to instruct public bodies to disclose information if the disclosure was in the public interest.

CEO of the Network for Consumer Protection Nadeem Iqbal said in the consumer economy consumers’ access to credible official information that can be used for corporate accountability was quite imperative and only possible if there was an effective right to information law in place.

“Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 could not protect citizens’ right to information and we need better law than the one being considered by the Senate committee.”

Arshad Rizvi of the Society for Alternative Media and Research said in the absence of an effective right to information law, journalists would have to rely on ‘exclusive’ information shared through ‘sources’ and would not be able to get information on time and topic of their own choosing.

Mohammad Aftab Alam, the executive director Institute for Research Advocacy and Development, said India enacted a robust and progressive right to information law in 2005 followed by Nepal in 2007, Bangladesh in 2009 and Sri Lanka in 2016 but citizens of Pakistan are still stuck with a weak and ineffective Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2017


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