ISLAMABAD - The Right of Access to Information Bill, 2017, presented in the Senate this week, would prove highly restrictive and ineffective like the previous law, it seeks to repeal, say civil society groups working to promote citizens’ right of access to information.

“Journalists and citizens are already facing difficulties in getting access to certified information from federal public bodies and this bill will not change the situation because of its ineffectiveness,” said members of the Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI), a consortium of 52 civil society groups working to protect and promote citizens’ right to information, while speaking at a press conference at the National Press Club on Friday.

The government on Monday introduced the much-awaited Right of Access to Information Bill, 2017 in the Upper House that, if passed by both the houses of Parliament, will replace the existing Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002.

The civil society activists said that the right of access to information (held by federal public bodies) was a constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right. However, citizens are unable to exercise this right in the absence of an effective federal right to information law.

The CRTI presented its charter of demands to the federal government for the enactment of an effective federal right to information law.

“The Right of Access to Information Bill 2017 is structurally flawed like Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and it should only be enacted after bringing it into harmony with the standards of effective right to information legislation,” the collation said in one of its demands.

“The proposed Pakistan Commission on Access to Information in the Right of Access to Information Bill should be empowered to instruct public bodies to disclose the information, if the disclosure is in public interest, and outweighs the likely harm,” it made a second demand.

“The Senate Committee on Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage should only approve the Right of Access to Information Bill 2017 after the input of civil society groups, right to information experts and journalists,” the coalition said.

Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives Executive Director Amer Ejaz said: “Like the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, the proposed bill also violates the key standard of effective right to information legislation which says that there should be one list of exempted information and the rest should be declared public.” The proposed ‘Information Commission’ had not been empowered to instruct public bodies to disclose information if the disclosure is in public interest, he said.

The Network for Consumer Protection CEO Nadeem Iqbal said that in the consumer economy, consumers’ access to credible official information that could be used for corporate accountability was quite imperative and only possible if there was an effective right to information law in place. “The previous law at the federal level could not protect citizens’ right to information and we need a better law than being considered by the Senate committee,” he said.

“Consumers need authentic and certified information that can be used to make an effective complaint that ultimately could be taken up by the consumer court. If a case is based on officially provided information, it makes it easier for the judges to protect consumer interest in their rulings,” he said.

Similarly, in the regulatory framework of PEMRA, NEPRA, OGRA, PTA, Competition Commission of Pakistan (CCP) etc, where the government is implicitly making decisions, consumers’ access to information can ensure that their rights are protected. It may be highlighted that consumers’ access to information is one of the prime right enshrined in the UN guidelines for consumer protection, he said.

Arshad Rizvi, representing Society for Alternative Media and Research, said that in the absence of an effective right to information law, journalists would have to rely on ‘exclusive’ information shared through ‘sources’ and would not be able to get information on the time and topic of their own choosing.

Muhammad Aftab Alam, Executive Director, Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development, said that India enacted robust and progressive right to information law in 2005, Nepal in 2007, Bangladesh in 2009 and Sri Lanka in 2016 but citizens of Pakistan were still stuck with weak and ineffective Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and the proposed bill is also like the previous law.

Muhammad Anwar, Executive Director, Centre for Governance and Public Accountability, said that federal government claims of transparency and good governance would always sound hollow unless and until it enacted effective right to information law.

This news was published in The Nation newspaper. Read complete newspaper of 20-May-2017 here.