A right step towards Right to Information

May 14, 2006: Leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party and the PML-N sign the Charter of Democracy. In it is a clause that reads: “Access to information will become law after parliamentary debate and public scrutiny”. Yet to this date, the Freedom of Information Ordinance (FIO) 2002 at the centre stands unrepealed.

Thankfully though, it appears that the Right to Information (RTI) Bill 2014 would be tabled soon. At least that is what Secretary Information Muhammad Azam has told to a senate standing committee. Earlier this week, Azam said that the summary for the approval of the bill has been forwarded to the Cabinet Division and after cabinets approval the bill will be presented in parliament.

Reportedly, the senate standing committee is very gung ho about getting the bill passed – so much so that the PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar has apparently expressed concerns over the delay in the tabling of the bill. That the PPP sat on the idea throughout its term ending 2013, and has also displayed indifference when it comes to passing the RTI in Sindh is another matter.

Anyway, the good thing is that RTI may well be passed at the centre. The draft copy of the bill available with BR Research reveals that it would be a huge improvement over the existing FIO. For instance, the FIO does not apply to corporations owned, controlled or funded by the federal government, whereas the proposed RTI does.

Similarly, it demands that public bodies must proactively disclose the rules, regulations, byelaws, manuals etc; relevant facts and background information behind their policies and decisions; budgets; directory of officers/employees, their powers, functions, perks and privileges & categories of information held. These elements were by and large missing in the FIO.

Then there are features like having an independent information commission to oversee a host of functions relating to the RTI. It also requires every public body as well as the information commission to publish annual report on what they have done to implement under the law, including details of requests received and processed. These features were not present in the FIO.

Amongst other important distinguishing features, the proposed federal RTI will override all other laws and provisions related to public disclosure of information. This can have important implications.

For instance, under the sixth schedule of Companies Ordinance 1984, the SECP can charge a rate of Rs2 per data field if anyone wants a list of registered companies. This cost appears to be a maintenance fee and defeats the underlying principle of freedom of information, as it raises the transaction costs of getting the information.

In contrast, the new RTI demands that only “lowest reasonable” cost can be charged. At another place, the proposed RTI says that only actual costs of reproducing information and sending it to the applicant can be charged, where “no fee shall be charged for the first twenty pages of information provided”.

Features like these will make the new RTI a real driving force for change. Bear in mind that the draft RTI has been based on the RTIs of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which are one of the top two or three RTI laws in the world, according to Zahid Abdullah of the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives – an organisation that is actively engaged in this field.

It is hoped that the RTI bill is passed soon, and that the government actually implements it instead of forgetting about it, as it has forgotten about the corporate governance of the public sector entities.

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