The Right for Access to Information Bill, 2017, unanimously passed by the Senate last week, is not only a success for the ruling PML-N but also a great step ahead to strengthen the democratic values. The passage of the bill is one of the rare successes of the legislature over the past four years of the current government. Although, the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 has been in the use, the Right for Access to Information Bill (2017) comprehensively covers the Article 19-A of the Constitution of Pakistan which states, “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.” Despite some apparent apprehensions, the adoption of the bill by all the parties is appreciable. Because Pakistan signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), it is required to issue its citizens such right. Since the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan does not explicitly recognise citizens’ right to access information, it was specified in the 2010 constitutional amendment under Article 19-A. Pakistan was also the first South Asian country to enact a law on freedom of information when it passed the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance at the Federal level in 1997. This Ordinance was later revoked, and a new Freedom of Information Ordinance was issued in 2002, which has a legal status to this day as it was covered under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. In 2004, the Freedom of Information Rules 2004 were enforced by the Federal Government, which described the procedural aspect of the Freedom of Information Ordinance. The FOI Ordinance of 2004 laid the basis for the following two provincial laws: The Balochistan Freedom of Information Act in 2005 and Sindh Freedom of Information Act in 2006. In addition, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act (KPK RTI) and the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Ordinance were both passed in 2013. The current bill to replace the FOI Ordinance was proposed last year by Pakistan’s federal government. While the FOI Ordinance authorises Pakistani citizens to gain access to data held by the national government, the RTI bill intends to streamline the process further as well as ensuring transparency through a parliamentary oversight committee. A timeline is expected to be defined for providing information, and solid reasons would have to be given in case of denial of any information. The RTI bill is not significantly different from the FOI Ordinance of 2004. However, it has a change in scope as the new bill is not restricted to only governmental organisations, but it also applies to non-governmental bodies that are funded or registered by the national government. According to the Statement of Objects and Reasons, the RTI bill is intended to promote a two-way flow of information, i.e. from the government to people and vice versa for strengthening and safeguarding the public’s “Right to know”, especially in the backdrop of Article 19-A of the Constitution which explicitly recognized this right as a fundamental right. But the main argument that has arisen in this case is the subjectivity of the line which separates the public information from the reasonable restrictions imposed by the law. Similar concerns were also raised following the passage of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015 where many definitions were left vague. The one positive that this bill entails is the authorities will need to provide a plausible explanation of withholding any public information. Secondly, it is appreciable that the Parliament has acted in a sane way, without politicking on petty issues – ensuring the smooth passage of the bill despite a charged political atmosphere at the moment. Similarly, it must be ensured that the relevant Parliamentary oversight committee formed for the said purpose ensures transparency. The parliamentarians in general and the members of Select Committee and Standing Committee on Information especially deserve appreciation for their valuable inputs and feedback on the bill. The passage of the RTI bill will definitely be a feather in the cap of the current government, provided that it is as useful for the public as it is being portrayed. Pakistan has lived under dictatorships for almost half its life, facing severe censorships among other hurdles. It remains to be seen whether the information on projects such as those falling under CPEC will be revealed to the public. Moreover, the bill is only applicable to the federal subjects as every province has their own Information Acts following the 18th amendment. Moreover, national security is a matter of utmost importance but it shouldn’t be used as a garb to hide other important facts – an aspect that is expected to become a hurdle. The writer is a freelancer and can be reached at email@example.com Published in Daily Times, September 5th 2017.