Every year, the world celebrates September 28 as the Right to Information Day to reiterate our commitment to freedom of expression and ensuring universal access to information. In Pakistan, however, the week leading to the RTI Day saw arrest warrants being issued for journalist Cyril Almeida for publishing an interview of a three-time prime minister. Almeida was doing no more than enabling citizens’ right to information guaranteed under 19-A, a fundamental right under the Constitution.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act was promulgated in October 2017, after its passage by the national assembly and senate and assent by the president. It is a landmark legislation which was endorsed unanimously by all political parties from all provinces of this country.
Prior to this legislation, even questions asked in the Parliament were disallowed on grounds of “secrecy and sensitivity.” For instance, some time ago, a question was asked in the Senate about whether inquiry had been held in the Kargil misadventure. It was disallowed because the subject was apparently “secret and sensitive.” Questions whether military officers submitted statements of their assets to the GHQ, and whether there was any legislation regulating the premier intelligence agency were similarly disallowed.
The RTI cannot be implemented without the Information Commission that was to be set up within six months to take up complaints against non-compliance. It has still not been set up
Scores of such questions being disallowed forced the Senator to publish a compendium Killed in the Chamber. It is an embarrassing document for any parliament, anywhere in the world and at any time in history.
In finalizing the 2017 RTI law, special attention was paid to address the issue of denial of information in the name of national security. There was a reliance and emphasis on the Johannesburg Principles which draw the line between security interests and public interests.
If any information is to be withheld for security considerations, a reasoned and written argument has to be provided by a principal officer who must justify that national security outweighs considerations of public interest. This reasoning can be challenged before an independent body called the Information Commission.
More importantly, the ‘national security’ argument will not apply if the information pertains to corruption in the security establishment’s business empires or if there was imminent threat to the life of a citizen in custody. In such cases no information can be withheld.
Mandatory disclosure, within two days, of information about a citizen in custody holds the possibility of taking forward the discourse on enforced disappearances with impunity.
Even the courts, the parliament and the NGOs funded by the government are not exempt from the ambit of the law. Not long ago, questions asked in the senate about suo moto cases were not answered on the grounds that they were against the independence of judiciary and the registrar of the Supreme Court declined to submit accounts before the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee. Hopefully all this should change now. But will it?
Legislation is one thing, making it operational another.
The RTI cannot be implemented without the Information Commission that was to be set up within six months to take up complaints against non-compliance. However, the commission has still not been set up.
The RTI also requires that all public bodies proactively disclose within six months most of the relevant information pertaining to them on their websites without being told to do so.
A remarkable study carried out by the Institute of Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) published last week makes some startling disclosures.
As many as 17 ministries do not have websites. Around 80 percent of the remaining 29 public bodies which have set up websites have proactively disclosed a mere five of the 39 categories of information supposed to be made public. A vast body of information has not been voluntarily disclosed.
Citizens also have not been active in seeking information as a right to serve the cause of transparency and accountability and hence, of democratic governance. Another study revealed the almost negligible resort to the RTI law by the citizenry. Even among journalists there are not many who employ the RTI legislation for investigative journalism. Resistance journalism, like resistance politics, has also declined.
Some people wield guns to stifle freedom of expression and citizens’ right to know. Some carry religious books to deny free discussion and debate on issues of ideology. The contempt law, in its present form, instils fear and inhibits freedom of expression to uphold the dignity of judges. A decline in resistance from the society and citizens is also responsible for the current situation.
The systematic and deep inroads of the security establishment in the media houses, its manipulation by various means along with building an independent and parallel media empire is also a factor in hampering freedom of expression.
PFUJ bodies from all over the country have met for three days in Abbottabad last week, protesting ‘harassment by state institutions through frontmen’ and pondering how to counter it.
Journalists and citizens need to cultivate the attribute of resistance by naming and shaming media outlets and state authorities behind censorship.
The media has also resorted to self-censorship. Visuals of Mullah Mansoor Akhtar killed in a drone attack in May 2016 were available with the media. But these were not shown until the drone attack in Balochistan was publicly acknowledged by President Obama and Taliban spokesperson. More than two years have passed but questions about who issued identity documents and passports to the well-known Taliban leader and where he was hiding so long have not been answered, and this could be because these questions have not been actively pursued.
Journalists’ and human rights bodies should pursue late Asma Jehangir’s petition in the Supreme Court about FM radio stations under ISPR, sources of funding and whether they are monitored by regulatory authorities. An answer to such questions may further the cause of the constitutionally-guaranteed right to information and freedom of expression.
The author has served as chairman of the Special Senate Committee on RTI law