Members of a Senate select committee unanimously adopted a bill that recognises citizens’ ‘right to know’ and the right to information about the government’s activities. During the meeting, members of the Senate committee reviewed the bill clause-by-clause and unanimously adopted all amendments and recommendations. The RTI Bill is intended to replace the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 — the existing right to information law — at the federal level. The newly-adopted law recognises citizens’ right to know under the Constitution and to have access to information about the activities of the government. It also seeks to ensure that information on missing persons is provided in writing by the relevant institution within three days of a request for information being filed. The bill also includes provisions for the protection of whistleblowers, as any person associated with a public entity which raises a flag on corruption and misappropriations in that entity will be protected under the law, and will receive immunity from prosecution in related cases. Whistleblowers from security institutions will receive similar protection.
A three-member commission with the power to order public bodies to disclose information and provide records will be formed to hear RTI requests. The Commission will entertain requests for records from the past 20 years, as records older than 20 years will automatically pass in the public domain. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will appoint members to the commission, which is expected to comprise one member of civil society, one from the bureaucracy, and one from the judiciary. In a bi-annual report, to be submitted to parliament, the commission will provide “an overview of activities undertaken by all public bodies.” A standing committee of the Senate and National Assembly will have the authority to remove members of the commission. Penal action will be taken against members of the commission in case they deliberately destroy any records.
The bill includes some important aspects as the transparency in the government affairs, protection of whistleblowers, citizens’ right to know and most importantly, the information on missing persons are associated with some teething problems in the country. Over the years, many government officials have been accused of corrupt practices, but they got away with the charges somehow. Even in the current administration, the issue of NAB plea bargains and other corruption scandals have been dealt by the NAB secretly and making the information accessible to the public is expected to ensure transparency. Similarly, the protection of whistleblowers is also the duty of the state, and it must be guaranteed to encourage the citizens to report the harmful practices. Perhaps the most teething issue is the information on missing persons once they are picked up by the security agencies. The bill will prove helpful in providing the government with all the available information as the security agencies will not be able to conceal information in the name of national security. The bill has a great potential to improve the transparency of government affairs, but it’s the honest implementation that will tell whether it will be of any use or not. *