ISLAMABAD: The newly-formed Select Committee of the Senate on the Right to Information (RTI) law is set to take up the draft of the much-delayed law in its first meeting on Wednesday with the task of striking a balance between the draft already passed by a Senate committee and the one proposed by the government without compromising on the citizens’ right to know guaranteed under the Constitution.
The legal and political experts believe that the task is truly daunting for the select committee as formidable invisible forces have always been perceived to oppose the RTI law at the federal level, though the provinces have already enacted their own right to information laws.
In one of the meetings of the Senate committee on information and broadcasting, the opposition members had rejected the defence ministry’s blunt suggestion that the RTI legislation should not be taken up without obtaining an NOC (no objection certificate) from it, terming the proposal as “atrocious”. The RTI laws in provinces have relatively been easier to frame and did not encounter much opposition largely due to the fact that matters relating to defence and foreign affairs are beyond their purview.
At seminars and public discussions on the issue, speakers have been wondering whether the government’s foot dragging, despite categorical assurances and promises, was linked to the deep rooted resistance of the security establishment to submit itself to any transparency and accountability.
The original RTI law was finalised unanimously by a sub-committee of the Senate Committee on Information and Broadcasting after discussion with stakeholders in 2014. The draft RTI, which was subsequently adopted with amendments by the full committee, was also endorsed both by the information ministry and law division and earned widespread commendation both within and outside Pakistan.
The then information minister, Pervez Rashid, at that time had announced that the draft would be adopted as the government bill. However, the bill was never brought by the government as its own bill despite repeated reminders from the Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting.
Last year, the government had set up another committee under Law Minister Zahid Hamid to re-examine the draft RTI already passed by the Senate committee. The government team has reportedly finalised the draft, but it has not been made public. However, the fact that the government felt it necessary to make changes in a draft law that it had endorsed previously will raise questions and make the new select committee look at it more closely whether it meets minimum standards of the right to know.
Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani had set up the select committee on Dec 27 in order to resolve the dispute and to report on the two sets of laws — one made by the Senate committee and the other by the five-member government team.
The new select committee has 13 members from all political parties, including four from the existing house committee on information besides the law minister and the state minister for information as ex officio members. The committee in its first meeting held on Jan 10 had elected Farhatullah Babar as its chairman and will now meet on Jan 18 to formally deliberate yet again on the elusive RTI.
Senator Babar was also the convener of the previous Senate sub-committee on the RTI with Syed Zafar Ali Shah, the then senator belonging to the PML-N and Daud Khan Achakzai of the ANP, as members. That committee had finalised the right to information law.
When contacted, chairman of the select committee Farhatullah Babar refused to comment on the matter, saying: “My position does not warrant that I speak on it ahead of the meeting. The committee will thrash out all issues.”
Frustrated by the inordinate delay by the government in bringing the RTI legislation before parliament and its alleged efforts to circumvent the earlier-agreed draft, the opposition had decided to move the same bill as a private members’ bill and it was moved in the Senate jointly by Farhatullah Babar, Rubina Irfan and Dr Karim Khwaja of the PPP, Kamil Ali Agha of the PML-Q and Daud Achakzai of the ANP in November last.
At the time of moving the bill, Mr Babar had stated that although the government had not yet formally shared its draft with the Senate committee, he had learnt that the government’s RTI law had reversed critical provisions in the bill, adopted unanimously by the Senate information committee.
The members of the civil society have welcomed the opposition’s move, saying that though there are some technical issues with the draft, it is a good document overall.
The opposition’s RTI bill has been designed to repeal the Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002 — the existing right to information law at the federal level.
The proposed law recognises the citizens’ right to know under the Constitution and to have access to information about the activities of the government.
It aims to empower the citizens on account of the right to know, impart access to public records under broad categories with limited exemptions, increase the capacity of citizens to effectively monitor the performance of the government and ensure transparency and accountability.
The bill lays down procedures to be followed in making requests for information from public bodies.
The bill creates offences and prescribes punishments and penalties for functionaries violating any provisions of the law and officials who do not comply with the provisions of the Act.
The bill also provides for the establishment of an “Information Commission” consisting of three members and provides for a mechanism dedicated to hearing information disclosure-related appeals, as opposed to the ombudsman with limited powers.