Category Published Date
Democracy 27 December 2016

The people of Pakistan continue to be denied information about governance, administration, the working of the public sector and other knowledge that could be of significance to them. While the Right to Information passed in 2014 by the Senate Standing Committee on Information had been applauded by international and local organisations for opening up information to the public, a new version of this bill approved by the cabinet this year effectively closes the doors that had been opened. In this sense, the law is no better than a similar piece of legislation passed under Pervez Musharraf in 2002. Just as that law did, this one too effectively promotes the lack of transparency by laying down lists which define what is and is not on ‘public record’, and then suggesting that in the public interest the government can exclude any other record from public information as well. Public interest is an extremely dangerous term. It has been misused for decades in our country, to withhold information from people, make legal decisions and carry out other measures that have effectively damaged the nation and citizens. This law does just the same. Whereas the draft law drawn up by the Senate committee had been rated as one of the best pieces of legislation in the world by organisations such as the Canada-based CLD which gave it 147 points out of 150, the same organisation has given a mere 97 points to the law now approved by the cabinet. The Islamabad based Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives has been as scathing in its opinion on the legislation, giving it only 86 marks out of 150 compared to 145 for the Senate bill. It should be noted that both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab have put in place excellent legislation that clearly defines the narrow areas that are exempt from being made public, but make the others open to anyone requesting information on them. This lack of transparency and desire to hide matters of government has been a defining feature of the manner in which our state has been run virtually since its inception. It is of course not just the media that suffers as a result but all citizens. Crucial information, which could have huge implications on health, environment, and other spheres and could also help check corruption at all levels, is kept hidden from the public. As anyone who has attempted to eke out information from government departments will testify, gaining access even to data which is entirely innocuous can be extremely arduous. The 2002 law in many ways made it harder to gain access to information. This attempt to control the flow of information continues and as a result leaves us all handicapped in so many different ways

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