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ISLAMABAD: Transparency International - Pakistan (TI-P) has urged Chairman Senate to withdraw a private bill on Right to Information (RTI) Law which is meant to exclude Parliament from the definition of public bodies.

According to a letter written by Vice Chairperson TI-P, former Justice Nasira Iqbal to Chairman Senate Sadiq Sanjrani TI-P, has received a complaint pertaining to the move by some Senators in moving the private bill “Right of Access to Information (Amendment Act) 2021” excluding Parliament from the definition of public bodies, which are bound to provide information to citizens, before the Senate. The complainant has made the following allegations: (i) the amendments are aimed at excluding the Senate, National Assembly, their secretariats, committees and members from the definition of “public body” as contained in Section 2(ix) (c) of the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 and are unconstitutional as these proposed amendments violate Article 19-A of the Constitution;(ii) the right to information, as enshrined in Article 19-A of the Constitution, clearly stipulates: “every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”.

The letter stated that Lahore High Court in its judgment has declared: “Right to information is another corrective tool which allows public access to the working and decision making of the public authorities. It opens the working of public administration to public scrutiny.

“This necessitates transparent and structured exercise of discretion by the public functionaries. Article 19-A empowers the civil society of this country to seek information from public institutions and hold them answerable” PLD 2010 Lahore 605.

“In a democracy, Parliament is the supreme institution and it is a fundamental right of every citizen to have an access to the functioning of the parliament. Excluding Senate, National Assembly, their secretariats, committees and members from the definition of “public body” also tantamount to treating peoples’ representatives as above the rule of law and accountability. In no democracies such examples are found where parliamentarians are considered above the purview of the RTI law. For instance, in India, the RTI applies to Lok Sabha in India and the related committees and serves as a tool for ensuring a more open and inclusive governance”.

According to the letter, the complaint has been examined and the following are Transparency International Pakistan’s comments and recommendations. Pakistan has come a long way to ensure that the effective RTI laws are in place at the federal and provincial levels. In 2002, Transparency International Pakistan was at the forefront to lead advocacy for the enactment of the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and Public procurement Ordinance 2002. That Pakistan has an improved version of RTI law at the federal level, efforts should be made to improve its implementation rather than weakening its scope. The Senators who have moved these proposed amendments in their individual capacity do not realize the impact such moves may have on Pakistan’s ranking on various international indices. For instance, the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) released by Transparency International uses eight international sources to calculate Pakistan’s score on CPI.

In all the eight sources, accountability of the public office holders is the central theme of the questions asked from the experts. On two of the sources, the PRS Group International Country Risk Guide and the World Bank Country Policy and Institutional Assessment, experts are asked to assess transparency, accountability and corruption in the public sector and legislators, and may result in lowering the score of Pakistan in future Transparency International CPI.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021