Keep momentum on Federal Right to Information Law

For the past decade, Pakistan has been waiting for freedom – the freedom for the people to see records that belong to them.

The worn-out Freedom of Information Ordinance of 2002 still controls access to federal-level government information. This law fails to establish broad access to government records, a detailed procedure for requesting them and an appeals process for decisions that rule against access. The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the historic Charter of democracy, signed between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in London in 2006, agreed to make legislation to update and improve the right to information.

PPP tried to pass the Federal Right to Information Law (RTI) during its regime 2008-2013 but failed. PML-N has also been striving for the Federal RTI since it came into power in 2013 but has yet to succeed. The crowning achievement of the PPP-PML-N through joint efforts was insertion of Article 19-A in the constitution in April 2010 through 18th Amendment that declared right to information as a fundamental constitutional right.

Amongst the four provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab have successfully promulgated comprehensive laws that protect and make easier the right of the public to obtain government records. Just last month Sindh replaced its Freedom of Information Act 2006 with the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Bill, passed on March 14, 2017. Balochistan has not introduced any RTI law and is using the old Freedom of Information Act 2005 as there is lack of political will for such laws in the province.

PML-N stalwarts repeatedly claimed during last four years that the government will table the right to information proposed law soon. The last statement came from the State’s Minister for Information Mariyum Aurangzeb that Right to Information Act 2016 will be moved in the house in a few days.

We are trying to be positive and hope this time it will happen. But movers and shakers of the bills, in their off-the-record chats with Truth Tracker, are again doubtful. They say that a steering committee of the parliament has approved the bill after which it would be tabled before the federal cabinet in a week or two. Once cabinet approves that the bill, the government would table it as a Government’s Bill in the parliament for final approval.

But they expect some resistance again. The bill is always blocked by military and judicial establishment of Pakistan.

PPP veteran leader Senator Fahatullah Babar showed exemplary courage during a debate in the Senate in 2015. He said the slogan of accountability will sound meaningless without across-the-board accountability, rejecting ‘sacred cows’ whether in the security establishment or in the judiciary.

He said that as long as the ‘sacred cows syndrome’ exists, accountability will remain a dream. Several parliamentarians commented off the record that these sacred cows are the major obstacle in the way of Federal RTI law.

RTI laws and requests for information often involve information about corruption of individuals. No one is above the law, even if they are prime ministers, ministers, generals, judges or journalists.

We can only wonder what secret grazing ground these sacred cows are trying to keep for themselves. Meanwhile, it’s time for the ranchers of democracy – our elected members of parliament – to show unity for the achievement.

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