Islamabad March 16, 2017: Chairman Special Committee of the Senate on Right to Information (RTI) Senator Farhatullah Babar today laid in the House the report along with the draft of RTI law which he said not only cut across the political divide but was also far reaching in depth and breadth enabling citizens to access information not only about federal government departments but also about the Parliament, the courts, the NGOs that received any assistance from the government in any form.

For the first time a provision has been incorporated to end the practice of seeking blanket immunity from disclosing information in the name of national security, he said.

Universally recognized Johannesberg principles that strike a balance between considerations of national security and public good have been relied upon in ending the practice of hushing up information behind the façade of national security, he said.

Under the law reasons will have to be recorded in writing as to how considerations of security outweighed public good and even then it will be challengeable before the Information Commission, he said.

Furthermore the plea of national security will not apply if the information sought related to corruption or if the life of a citizen was in imminent and real danger. Information about defence planning, deployment of forces and defence installations and related defence and security matters however will be exempt from disclosure.

The Bill also provides for Information Commission for deciding appeals but rejects the notion that its members must be from the judiciary alone, he said.

He said that the underlying principles of the RTI Bill were ensuring maximum disclosure, minimum exemptions, the right to appeal and applicability across the board to all state institutions including even NGOs receiving government support in any form.

Wilfull destruction of official record with a view to withholding information from the public has been made a criminal offence carrying a jail term of two years.

Members of the Information Commission will be appointed by the Prime Minister but he will not be able to do it arbitrarily by from any single section of society but will have to select one member each from three distinct areas of society including former civil military bureaucracy, retired judges and civil society organizations. The Prime Minister will also have no powers to dismiss ny Commission which power rests with the Parliament.

Public record now includes information about transactions, acquisition and disposal of property, grant of licenses, allotments and contracts awarded by a public body to name a few, he said. It also includes noting on the files and minutes of the meetings but not before a final decision has been taken on any issue.

The Bill overrides all other laws and thus the outdated Official Secrets Act of 1923 is made redundant for purpose of withholding information..

However, Farhatullah Babar said, the real issue is not making a law but that of the culture of secrecy and of sacred cows.

Questions asked in the Senate in Musharraf days like whether inquiry had been held in Kargil, whether defence officers declared their assets to their respective headquarters and whether there is a law under which ISI operated were not replied on the ground that national security was at risk, he said. Now such questions cannot be swept under the carpet on the ground of endangering national security. However, whether the powerful and mighty  would submit to law and answer such questions is yet to be seen. I plead before all, the high and the low, the powerful and the weak alike, to respect the legislation if  and when passed by the parliament.

He thanked and lauded the role of the State Minister for Information Maryum Aurangzeb and all members of the Committee from all political parties for making possible the consensus Bill.

Later in reply to a question from media on the Information Commission he said all Judges are honorable but we do not subscribe to the notion that they alone possess the integrity and competence to be members of Information Commission. We believe that there are outstanding men and women in all other walks of life possessing no less integrity and competence who too qualify to sit in the Information Commission.

There are honorable and competent men and women of great integrity in all other strata of society who can sit as members of Information Commission along with retired judges.

 

 

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