LAHORE - There is no system to protect secret documents in the public sector as officials may leak any information they like to anybody with the help of electronic gadgets.

Though, secrecy has least concerns in a democratic society for transparency in financial affairs but privacy of public documents still matters.

Sometimes officials having secret record disclose it to the other party that may manipulate the system for its own interest.

A couple of years back there was a proper system to protect official files and an Archives Department was duly set up since the British Regime for the purpose. It was the responsibility of a section officer to save and protect the official record. But gradually the system dwindled.

The officers appointed by a particular regime often give access of the records to their political masters irrespective of the fact that the data may be damaging for a group of society. Such officers also deny furnishing information to the anti-graft bodies on corruption like the Punjab officers did in companies’ case. On the apex court direction the data on officers salary packages, their perks etc were presented to the NAB.

However, some departments like the Anti-Corruption Establishment and Board of Revenue have threatened their officials not to share departmental information with anybody especially with the media men. They defend their act saying that since they hear judicial or criminal matters so exposé of information damages court proceedings. “If any party or media flash any key issue being heard in the court it may damage the justice system” said a BOR member. He said that the BOR should rather reveal issues like state-land grabbing and also provide list of people who occupied them illegally. He also advocated that government should public contracts on Orange-line Metro Train. The tax payers should know on what terms and conditions the foreign funding was managed, if so.

Though it is claimed that right to information is a primary right of the citizens yet the real picture seen in public sector departments is quite contrary to it.

There is least access to information of the commoners and media men in the Chief Minister Office. However, the new government should ensure not only right to information but also legislate to protect whistleblowers. Moreover, there should be a law on conflict of interest in the province that was missing.

The officers deputed to work on official matters usually hide it from media and other people. They defend their act saying that information cannot be made public for many reasons. If you disclose the names of officers the authority wanted to transfer to remote areas or less privileged departments, the said officers lobby to cancel the activity using their links. So, they advocate that in such cases the privacy of public documents is kept superior. On the other hand, the privacy of some decisions regarding award of contracts is kept secret otherwise contractors working with the government departments manage officers get the projects.

 Moreover, a former Finance secretary said if the government fails to ensure privacy of budgetary documents, the business community specially the traders would manipulate the market well before the announcement of the budget. He said that after knowing that the government would impose or increase tax on any commodity the business mafia would devise a strategy accordingly. If they came to know that the government would increase taxes on imports or excise duty on some items, such businessmen would surely go to stock these items for a specific time period and then sell them later on higher prices.

However, the former finance secretary said that the financial transactions should be made public through media on the government’s website to ensure transparency.

He confessed that the accessibility of records is not encouraged in the province though the law of Right to Information Act (RTI) stresses to do so. Requests for access to information are primarily refused by departments excusing the requested data falls in the secrecy list. The information is not even provided on the interference of the Information Commissioner. He confessed that in some cases the higher judiciary had to order to provide the information to the petitioner. “The Punjab government kept the judicial commission report of the Model Town massacre secret even after the affected party sought it” the officer said. He said that the home ministry disclosed the report to the party on the Lahore High Court direction. He also said that the police have to keep privacy of the whistleblowers and those who provide information about criminals. He further advocated that many matters like tax records, tax-assessed property, bankruptcy court cases, driving licenses, criminal cases, medical data, voters data, court cases, legislative meeting minutes, professional and business licenses, arrest records, criminal convictions should be made public.

An officer of the Implementation and Coordination department also on anonymity said that the office issued directions to ensure privacy of documents in many cases. The officers have time and again been directed to use only safe government emails. He said, the officers often failed to follow such instructions in letter and spirit and use their private email addresses for communication.