Karachi December 15, 2014: The Right to Information legislation has been finalized by the senate committee on Information and the bill will be tabled as government bill for which it has already been sent to the cabinet division for approval of the federal cabinet at its next meeting after which it will be tabled in the Parliament as government bill.
This was stated by Senator Farhatullah Babar who is also convener of the Senate subcommittee on RTI, at the national seminar on citizens’ right to information and social accountability organized by the Sindh Madrasatul Islam University (SMIU) in Karachi today. The seminar was also addressed by VC SMIU Dr Muhammad Ali Sheikh, former Supreme Court judge justice Deedar Hussain Shah and former high court judge Justice Majida Rizvi.
He said that the underlying principles of the RTI Bill were ensuring maximum disclosure, end of blanket immunity in the name of national security, minimum exemptions, the right to appeal to Information Commission, provision of whistle blowing and imprisonment for willful destruction of record to avoid disclosure.
In addition to federal government departments and autonomous bodies it also covers NGOs, Parliament and the Courts.
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.
The definition of ‘record’ had been widened to also include noting on the files and minutes of the meetings.
He said the concept of blanket immunity in the name of national security had been done away with and exemptions limited only to defence planning, deployment of forces and defence installations. Furthermore, exemptions claimed will have to be accompanied with a detailed explanation.
The Bill also provides for Information Commission for deciding appeals but rejects the notion that its members must be only be retired judges of high courts and SC.
“Judges are honorable men but we reject 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 including retired bureaucrat, outstanding lawyers, eminent media persons and academia and professionals who too can qualify to sit in the Information Commission”.
However, senator Farhatullah Babar said, the real issue is not making a law but that of the culture of secrecy and of sacred cows.
We keep things under the wraps in the name of national security. The defence ministry, he said, had asked parliament against RTI legislation “till NOC of the Ministry of Defence”, which was of course disregarded by the committee.
Likewise questions asked in the Senate some years ago 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.
The tendency to have holy cows is another impediment, he said. Questions asked about the number of cases pending in some high courts were not answered on the ground that it impinged on the independence of judiciary.
He said that the enactment of RTI legislation the academia, the citizens and the civil society all have to wage a collective struggle against the prevailing culture of secrecy and sacred cows. This will be a long fight against a mindset and a worthwhile fight, he said.