Right wronged

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The Right to Information (RTI) bill, originally introduced as an ordinance by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, has finally been passed by the provisional assembly but amendments added to the bill have made it considerably weaker. The RTI bill now imposes a fine of Rs50,000 or a two-year prison sentence for those who ‘use the information obtained for mala fide purposes’. The bill itself does not define what falls under the ambit of mala fide purposes so this clause could end up scaring away people from seeking information and be used to persecute those who uncover official wrongdoing. For some reason, the Peshawar High Court has been exempted from public bodies that must comply with the terms of the bill. A wide swath of information that should routinely be made available to the public has also been exempted from the bill, including topics related to ‘international relations and security’, ‘disclosure harmful to law enforcement’, ‘public economic affairs’, ‘public money’, ‘privacy’, ‘legal privilege’ and ‘commercial and confidential information”. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, by adding these exceptions to the bill, could deny the release of almost any information it would prefer to keep secret. Should they be abused, these clauses have the ability to render the rest of the bill null and void.

Despite these regrettable changes, the RTI bill could be used as a model for the other provinces and the centre. The draft Freedom of Information Bill presented by the PML-N is a travesty that does the very opposite of what such a bill should do. It gives individual departments the right to decide if they want to release documents and the only oversight is in the form of an ombudsman who can advise them but has no real authority. Each request for information also requires the payment of a burdensome fee which will surely discourage the public from exercising their right to know what their elected representatives and public servants are up to. This is where the RTI bill should inform the Freedom of Information bill currently being considered in the Senate. The RTI bill mandates that officers be appointed who can be approached for all requests for information and who will be expected to avoid delays and obfuscation. Even more importantly the RTI bill includes protection for whistleblowers so that no one will lose his or her job for revealing information that could be damaging to those in power. Of course, the success of the RTI can only be judged by its implementation but the federal government should pay heed to some of the language in that bill.

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