Federal govt’s RTI draft law termed weakest in South Asia

Canada-based institute gives it 97/150 marks against Senate body draft that got 147/150 marks

ISLAMABAD: Tall claims apart, the PML-N government has decided not to walk the talk on the much-awaited Right to Information draft law recently approved by the cabinet.

The ruling party that had promised to produce the best law in the world has delivered one of the worst. It will be the weakest RTI law in South Asia, according to the Center for Law and Democracy (CLD), a Canada-based research institute that does  ranking of transparency legislation in the world.

The information being promised through this draft law is already public and anything beyond that has been left on the discretion of bureaucracy to decide how to block ‘in public interest.’    Copy of the draft available with The News indicates that radical alterations have been made in the law that was unanimously finalized by the Senate Standing Committee on Information.

The modified version, now approved by the cabinet, has striking resemblance with the good-for-nothing RTI legislation that has been in practice since 2002 when promulgated by Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Experts on RTI legislations, who examined this bill, have ranked it among the weakest laws of the world. The Canada-based CLD has given it 97 marks, out of 150, in comparison with Senate Committee’s draft that scored 147 marks from the same organization.

Center for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), an Islamabad-based organization working on RTI, has offered only 86 marks to this cabinet-approved bill and gave a detailed analysis of its shortcomings. Its score for the Senate bill was 145, out of 150.

One of the key measures to check the effectiveness of RTI law is the measure taken to ensure maximum disclosure of public information.  The government-approved draft has no clearly and narrowly drawn list of the exempted information. Instead, there are three different lists containing categories of information as is in the case of the existing law, making it hard to let the requesters get information by any means.

The laws in KP and Punjab, considered great pieces of legislation, have narrowly defined the exempted information whereas this law drafted for implementation at federal level has gone to an extent of separately defining ‘public record’ in section 6, and ‘exclusion of record’ in section 7 that goes on describing that ‘any other record which the Federal Government may, in public interest exclude from the purview of this Act, will also be refused.

There are many instances where the requesters have been refused information under the existing law in the name of ‘public interest.’  This is in addition to the lists given in the draft bill of ‘records that can be shared and records that can’t be shared and then certain types of information, if contained in these records, will not be shared.

On the other hand, the draft earlier approved by the Senate committee contained only one clearly and narrowly drawn list of information exempt from disclosure and declared the rest of the information to be made public. The intended objective was to ensure maximum disclosure, a purpose defeated by the government-approved law.

The newly drafted law doesn’t offer any right to the requester to inspect documents being granted lest he is provided the unwanted details. The Senate committee law had protected the requester’s right to inspect.

Another measure that judges the efficacy of an RTI law is the enforcement mechanism. The draft law though promises an information commission with powers of civil judge to enforce its directives, it is vague about the composition of the commission. It says that commissioners would be picked from legal fraternity, civil society activists with understanding of RTI and bureaucracy.

However, there is no provision to declare that whether there will be one from each section of society or all three can be picked from one place, raising suspicions that bureaucrats will be given the task to block information instead of ensuring its provision.

The News

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