February 14, 2021

STAFF REPORT


LAHORE

The Women’s Action Forum (WAF) has condemned the action by Senator Waleed Iqbal and others, in moving the “Right of Access to Information (Amendment) Act, 2021” before the Senate. This amendment bill purports to exclude the Senate, National Assembly, their secretariats, committees and
members from the definition of a “public body”, contained in Section 2(ix)(c) of the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017.

WAF has demanded that this bill be withdrawn immediately.

NEVER FULLY IMPLEMENTED

The Right of Access to Information Act was passed in September 2017, by the federal government, after four years of the draft bill being presented in the assembly. Experts say that it is effective if implemented properly, the whole issue is exactly that. The law has never been fully implemented.

The RTI law is a federal act, as well as being in Punjab, Sindh and KP. But because it faces a few challenges it has never been fully implemented.

For example, earlier research by Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) shows that most government officials tend to ignore RTI requests. The study said that ‘the quality and quantum of the information provided in response to the RTI requests also remained a question’.

“Often departments avoided answering the questions. The queries that they answered were full of deceptions and deflected or ignored the actual requested information,” writes journalist Azaz Syed on this law. “The federal government failed to establish an appellate body to hear complaints during the six months after the passage of the RTI law by the national parliament.”

ACTIVISTS ANGRY OVER NEW AMMENDEMENT

Despite its partial implementation, the Act was still there, but the new move has angered activists.

WAF press statement issued on Sunday evening said that the “Statement of Objects and Reasons” of the amendment bill was based on an ‘incorrect understanding’ of the role of Parliament, as a public body, in a democracy, and a deeply flawed understanding of Constitutional provisions, including Article 69 of the Constitution.

In line with other regressive laws, rules, and policies that have been recently introduced to curtail the rights to expression and information, this amendment bill also attempts to roll back the right to information, protected
under Article 19-A of the Constitution.

RIGHT TO INFORMATION EMBEDDED IN CONSTITUTION

According to the Right to Information, safeguarded in Article 19-A of the Constitution, it is clearly stipulated that “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”.

In Province of Punjab v. Qaisar Iqbal, the importance and scope of Article 19-A was clearly outlined by the Lahore High Court (LHC). In Paragraph 61, the court observed: “Right to information and access to information in all matters of public importance is indisputably a fundamental right guaranteed under Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution. The right to information stems from the requirement that members of a democratic society should be sufficiently informed that they may influence intelligently the decision which may affect themselves.”

In suggesting that the parliament and the Senate, along with their secretariats, committees and members be excluded from the
scope of the 2017 Act, there is a deliberate attempt being made to subvert the Constitutional guarantee contained in Article 19-A.

In the aforementioned case, the LHC explicitly stated that the
“people of Pakistan have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries and chosen representatives.”

BASIC INFORMATION WITHHELD FROM CITIZENS

‘If this regressive amendment bill is not defeated, it will deprive citizens of their right to access information,’ read the statement by WAF. ‘We urge the Senate Standing Committee on Information, before which this bill will be placed on February 15, 2021, to reject this instrument. Parliament cannot be excluded from the scope of the 2017 Act as without information from or relating to, Parliament and Parliamentary debates, procedures and business, the citizens of Pakistan cannot make informed and responsible decisions regarding their collective future.’

The WAF statement adds that the enactment of this instrument would ensure even more deterioration in the quality of political discourse, which would ultimately negatively impact the political participation of citizens in matters of public importance. The rights-based platform states that the devastating impact of this on Pakistan’s already fragile democracy cannot be emphasized enough.

Key functions of the Parliament include lawmaking, determining the national budget, discussion on the issues of public importance and concern, and monitoring and oversight. Therefore it becomes not only illogical but also unconstitutional to exclude it from the scope of the 2017 Act.

WAF members say that it is unfortunate that instead of respecting fundamental rights and abiding by the Constitution, this Government has chosen to supersede the Parliament by legislating via ordinances.

“Its members routinely present bills to further curtail rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” said a representative of WAF. “This amendment bill is yet another attempt to limit transparency and accountability with respect to State action. Because the Parliament is accountable to the citizens, we need greater transparency about its workings and decision-making at all
levels.”

The WAF statement further reads that no public representative or public body should be above scrutiny and accountability. As is apparent from
this move and similar attempts prior to it, accountability is something this Government seems to believe others must be subjected to but that its own members can and should be excluded from the same.

 

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