If a new Right to Information bill is approved by Parliament in Pakistan, the defence establishment may not find it so easy to refuse information to the public. This would come after a decade of enactment of the earlier law — considered more or less a failure.

A Senate committee on information and broadcasting approved the draft Right to Information bill just before the end of the Parliament session last week. However, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province had already passed an ordinance on this on August 13.

Mr. Azmat Hanif, secretary for information, KPK said the ordinance is part of the reform agenda of the new government headed by the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) and part of the 11 new laws that will be enacted in the troubled province.

Though Pakistan has a Freedom of Information act since 2002, it was merely an international obligation, said Pakistan People’s Party spokesperson Farhatullah Babar who was convenor of the Senate committee.

Farhatullah Babar, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) spokesperson and convenor of the Senate committee, told The Hindu that the new bill has been endorsed by all parties. He said the committee had invited comments from all departments including defencewhich is reluctant to share information, citing national security but they did not make any worthwhile suggestions. Though it did not make any worthwhile suggestions, the defence department had asked the committee to postpone finalising the draft. Mr. Babar said they had waited for 15 months and decided to go ahead without its recommendations.

“Even asking the pay and perks of military staff was denied due to national security but now we have said that other than information on deployment of forces or defence installations, “[I]f the Defence Ministry refuses to give information, the onus shall be on the officials to give an explanation. The applicant can seek a review and this has not happened before. The appeal can go right up to the President as we have a Federal Ombudsmen act,” he said.

The new bill has made it difficult for information seekers to be rebuffed and there is no blanket immunity for the Defence Ministry, he pointed out. The 18th Constitutional amendment, with article 19A in 2010, gave Pakistan the right to information. The new bill also proposes to override all other acts including the Official Secrets act. It has also brought NGOs under the ambit of the law and there could be an open debate on whether madrassas or political parties can be under scrutiny, he said.

However, the provinces will have to enact their own laws which cover police and law and order agencies, he added. Justifying the law for KPK, Mr. Hanif quoted a study conducted by the World Bank and other international agencies on Post Crisis Needs Assessment (PCNA) in KPK and Federally Administered Tribal areas (FATA) , September 2010 which gave among other reasons for the high level of militancy in the Province, the absence of communication between the public and the government. The report said that “Militants in FATA and KP have exploited frustrations at decades of weak governance, perceived corruption and wide-ranging socio-economic deficits: this has resulted in the most acute destabilization of the region in decades, causing huge population displacement and even greater vulnerability.”

The KPK ordinance has 32 sections, including protection for whistleblowers. A public information officer will be nominated for all the departments and it also has a strong enforcement mechanism, Mr. Hanif said. An information commission with five members headed by a retired government servant will be constituted and there would be web based publication of records. However some agencies are exempt from the act. The Centre for Law and Democracy has given this KPK ordinance a score of 143 out of 250 and it ranks among the top most in the world, Mr. Hanif pointed out.

In the past he said even the Sindh and Balochistan provinces have had similar acts but they were modelled on the federal law and much diluted. Under the KPK Right to Information ordinance, each public body shall ensure that all of the records are properly maintained and also publish an annual report to include all requests for information and how they have been processed.

The public bodies have to designate an official to whom requests for information can be sent.

Requests have to be made in writing or my e-mail, mail or fax. There will be no need to provide reasons for the request which has to be acknowledged with a receipt. In case the person is not able to give a written request, the designated officer can help out with this and also assist in determining the exact nature of the information being sought. The requests have to be dealt with in ten working days and it can be extended by another ten in case there is a need to consult a third party or search through large number of records. There is a provision for information needed to protect the life and liberty of any individual to be given within two working days.

There is no fee to make a request for information though fees may be charged for actual costs of reproducing the information. No fee will be charged if the person is below the poverty line or for the first 20 pages of material.

Despite many progressive clauses, the act stops short of giving information which is likely to cause “grave and significant harm to international relations or national security or if the disclosure is harmful to law enforcement or cause damage to the economy, prejudice public policy mailing or invade the privacy of an identifiable third party individual”.

There is a provision for appeal and the aggrieved party can complaint to the Information Commission which has to dispose of it within 60 days. The Commission will also have the power to conduct inquiries and will have the powers of a civil court. It also has the authority to impose fines of up to Rs 250 a day up to a maximum of Rs 25,000 on any official for delaying information.