ISLAMABAD - Following the leak of information about the in-camera briefing of Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa to the Senate Committee of the Whole House, the Senate on Thursday amended its rules to protect the secrecy of the in-camera meetings — a move that puts a question mark on the openness and transparency of the parliament. 

The amendment — made through the insertion of a new rule in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Senate 2012 — “introduces punishment for those lawmakers or other persons found guilty of disclosing information of in-camera proceedings or meetings of the House or in-camera parts of such meetings”. Under the new rule 255A, “any lawmaker or person facing charges of disclosing any information of in-camera proceedings would have to appear before the House Business Advisory Committee and if found guilty, the lawmaker could be suspended for a term not exceeding thirty consecutive sitting of the House”.

Opposition lawmaker Mushahid Hussain Syed slightly objected to the amendment fearing it looked person-specific after the army chief’s briefing to the Committee of the Whole House. However, a clarification came from Senate Chairman Mian Raza Rabbani who said that the amendment was not driven by the army chief’s briefing as the issue was very old.

The issue of disclosure of information of the in-camera sessions of the House and its committees came to the limelight when Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa last year attended an in-camera meeting of the Committee of the Whole House to brief the lawmakers on issues of national security.

Despite strict directions of the Senate chairman that no member would disclose information to the media, most of the proceedings of the meeting made headlines the next day. This angered the Senate chairman who at that time said that “this was a clear breach of privilege of the House”. He had formed a committee which included leaders of the House and opposition in Senate and parliamentary leaders of all parties with the mandate to investigate the matter and devise a strategy for future in-camera sessions to prevent similar situations. Rabbani had also forwarded the matter to the House Business Advisory Committee for examination.

The new Rule 255A with the name: “Punishment for divulging or disclosing of information” was unanimously adopted by the House through a motion moved by Leader of the House Raja Zafarul Haq. It says that “where a member or any person specifically participating in any in-camera proceedings, divulges or discloses any information regarding any part of the proceedings or comments or speeches or opinions expressed therein, such member or another person …shall be required to appear before the House Business Advisory Committee.” It further says that “the lawmaker or the person would be given an adequate opportunity to explain the disclosure attributed to him and lawmakers may be suspended for a term not exceeding thirty consecutive sittings of the House”.

The Senate chairman in his remarks said that violations of sections 7 (5) of the code of conduct, and rules of business of the house was committed by leaking the in-camera briefing of Whole Committee. He said that House Business Advisory Committee examined the matter and suggested an amendment to the rule. He said that the amendment was needed legally after the formations of the Ethics Committee of the House who would use this rule as a legal instrument to take action on any mater.

The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Aitzaz Ahsan in his concluding remarks said that this should not be understood that openness and transparency was being questioned through the amendment. He said that the Senate was now more open than in the past as the media was allowed to even sit in the closed door meetings.

“We are open to criticism and analysis by the people through the media,” he said adding that the move was not person0specific, in reply to a question of PML-Q Senator Mushahid Hussain. He gave the example of in-camera meetings of all parties conferences held in the past saying that word to word details of such meetings were leaked to the media and deplored that some code of conduct could not be formed for such APCs. He said that press is consciously kept out some meetings to discuss certain matters and the rule would be applicable where the committee had decided that meeting would not be open to the media.

Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping Hasil Bizenjo said that he wanted that the committee looking into the matter should fix the responsibility for leaking the information but that was not done. He said that house ethics committees throughout the world examined the conduct of the lawmakers.

MQM Senator Tahir Hussain Mashhadi said that this was the question of trust and added: “We cannot have lawmakers breaching the law when it comes to an in-camera briefing.”

Senators Sehar Kamran and Mir Kabir remarked that the issue of the leaking information to the media was also witnessed when the joint defence committees of both the houses of the parliament got a briefing from the top army brass at an in-camera session.

Separately, the Senate chairman referred the matter of promotion policy of 2016-17 of the National Bank of Pakistan to Senate Standing Committee on Finance after State Minister for Finance Rana Muhammad Afzal failed to satisfy the chair.

The chair said that apparently, the process lacked transparency. PPP Senator Mukhtiar Ahmed Damrah had raised the issue through a call-attention notice saying the process lacked transparency as seniority marks entailed in the previous policy were ignored. He said that promotions caused unrest among the employees of the bank. The state minister said that policy remained unchanged for the promotion of junior officers and only changes were made for promotion of senior positions.

 

 

Senate amends rules to protect secrecy of info

IMRAN MUKHTAR