The recent wave of erosion of freedom of information (FOI) laws in Pakistan, has not only given citizens qualified right of access to information held by public institutions but have also triggered challenges for the government. Undoubtedly, this transformation has not only enhanced the vision and access of the public to the information, otherwise categorized, but has also initiated trials for the government.

FOI laws have recently been diffused throughout the advanced democracies over the last few decades. The right to information is important for many reasons including creating a more open and democratic society by the enhancement of transparency which directly challenges state’s traditional exclusive right of retaining information. In the past decade the principle of promotion of transparency in policy and decision-making has become engrained as one of the main precepts of good governance. The terms Right to Information and Freedom of Information are often used and as one of the fundamental rights of society. Freedom of information is closely linked in Sustainable Goals to a culture of openness. Civil society groups have further called for more commitment in enforcing right of information.

Freedom of Information can be defined as the right to access information held by public bodies. It is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognised by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. FOI has also been enshrined in important and decisive international instruments such as International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), UNESCO World Press Freedom Day conference in Brisbane, Australia, 3 May 2010. Furthermore, this right has been further been incorporated in UN sustainable development goals envisage the protection to the right to access information, and journalists’ safety.

Besides, Article 19-A of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, in the wake of the 18th Amendment on April 8, 2010, has also been widely acknowledged right to information as a fundamental constitutional right. This was the result of a decade long struggle which can be traced back in 1990s. In October 2002, President Musharraf promulgated the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 (FOI Ordinance), largely at the initiative of the Asian Development Bank. The Ordinance should have lapsed within four months; it became permanent following the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Moreover, at provincial level Pakistan has succeeded in drafting and implementing more extensive legislation. RTI bills are based on the principle of providing maximum disclosure. The laws clearly indicate that there is no blanket immunity for public bodies in the law and there is strict imposition of penalties for withholding or destroying information.

Nevertheless, such laws definitely challenge the state’s exclusive traditional right to retain information by terming it ‘classified’. What information falls into the classified and has protected shield against the implemented law? Classified information is sensitive information to which access is restricted by law or regulation to particular classes of people. The contradiction prevails that what information can be classified and which ones can be disclosed upon request. Is there any legislation, rules, by-laws for the guidance of people and governmental agencies to categories the classified and declassified information. There has to be a clear differentiation in specifying overt and covert information under official secret act. According to the National Archives Act, 1993, public records shall be made available to the public for the purpose of reference or research after twenty years of their creation. Moreover, FIO requires the retention of information prior to revealing the information. Strong law regarding whistleblowers also provide protection to the person who reveals information. Is this protection unbridled? This matter was also brought in light in the recent scandal broke with leakage of news by one of the leading newspaper.

Pakistan has witnessed and experienced scandals of ‘Memogate’ or ‘Dawnleaks’, where a clear rift could be seen between the powerful generals of the country with the existent government of the time on sharing of information. The Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar made a very clear statement that the Dawn Story was inaccurate and against national security. However, it was also very adamantly declared by the Interior Minister that journalist was a free man, but inquiry will be set up to look into the mater. Such scandals not only triggered the long lingering debate on civil-military relations but also question the credibility of news, sources of leakages and the feeble secrecy structure of the information department.

Questions remain the same from 2011 till today that what information should be shared and what should be made secret? Merely passing legislation won’t solve such issues. The national legislature needs to work properly and intensively to differentiate between ‘classified and non-classified’ news.