ISLAMABAD: As the Senate Committee’s draft bill on the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2013 has come under sharp criticism, RTI activists have declared it in contravention of the Constitution.

There is a long negative list (borrowing an analogy from Pak-India trade) and a small positive list of the information one can apply for. The draft law does not contain any definition of information and more energy has been spent in spelling out categories of information a citizen cannot access through a petition as six sections of the bill deal with the ‘negative list’.

Zahid Abdullah, Coordinator Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI), has urged the Senate sub-committee on information and broadcasting (author of this draft) to adopt the Freedom of Information Law 2013 of the Punjab after getting input from the civil society.

Punjab’s law was drafted by the caretaker government headed by chief minister Najam Sethi. Being a seasoned journalist, Sethi was determined to pass the draft into law through an ordinance; it was later decided to be left for the newly elected government to do.

Chief minister Shahbaz Sharif had promised while talking to The News said that the information law will be the first bill to be pushed through the Punjab Assembly.

All eyes are set on him to see whether or not he translates his commitment into reality. The draft law is toothless and offers no hope of breaking the tight wall of secrecy by introducing radical clauses.

The draft law, according to CRTI, is in contravention of the spirit of Article 19-A of the Constitution. It is ironic that the draft law on right to information does not contain a clear definition of information, Zahid Abdullah said. The focus of the draft law is on enlisting categories of information that will not be provided to the citizens and six sections have been devoted for this purpose, he explained.

There should have been only one section enlisting information exempted from disclosure and the rest of the information should have been declared public as is the practice in effective laws around the world including India and Bangladesh, a statement issued by CRTI said.

Instead of establishing an independent information commission, the Federal Ombudsman has been entrusted with the task of playing the role of appellate body. If we want to ensure the free flow of information from public bodies to the citizens, the establishment of independent and autonomous information commission is a prerequisite as is the case in many countries including India and Bangladesh, CRTI argued.

Taking decisions on contentious matters pertaining to the right to information is a specialised job, which should only be entrusted to an independent and autonomous information commission.

Further, the role of the appellant body pertaining to the right to information is not just to decide disputes regarding access to information, which often involves vested interests and powerful mafias, and requires certain skills and competencies.

Its functions also include ensuring the proactive disclosure of information, issuing guidelines in this regard to the government and presenting an annual ‘state of right to information’ in the country to the legislative body, said CRTI statement.

The argument that the establishment of a new entity will incur extra expenditures does not really hold water. The benefits of an accountable and transparent government resulting from the efforts of a powerful information commission will far outweigh the costs of establishing such an institution, CRTI explains.

The caretaker Punjab government drafted a much better law in the shape of Punjab Freedom of Information Ordinance 2013, which is under the consideration of the Punjab government, than the one proposed by the Senate sub-committee. CPDI urges the federal government to adopt the draft Punjab Freedom of Information Ordinance 2013 after input from civil society organisations and media.

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