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Editorial: Vice Chairperson Transparency International-Pakistan (TI-P) former Justice Nasira Iqbal has responded to a complaint received by the watchdog platform regarding a private Senate members’ Bill on the Right to Information (RTI) law, which is meant to exclude parliament from the definition of public bodies, by writing a letter to Chairman Senate Sadiq Sanjrani urging him to withdraw the controversial Bill. The private Bill, titled “Right of Access to Information (Amendment Act) 2021,” wishes parliament to be excluded from the definition of public bodies bound to provide information to citizens. The complainant has delineated the objections to the Bill by pointing out that the amendments aimed at excluding the Senate, National Assembly, their secretariats, committees and members as a whole from the definition of “public body” as contained in Section 2(ix)(c) of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 are unconstitutional as these proposed amendments violate Article 19-A of the Constitution. The right to information, according to Article 19-A, 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.” Former Justice Nasira Iqbal’s letter quotes a judgement of the Lahore High Court (LHC) that 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.” The LHC judgement goes on to point out that this necessitates a transparent and structured exercise of discretion by the public functionaries, underlining that Article 19-A empowers civil society to seek information from public institutions and hold them answerable. In a democracy, the LHC judgement continues, parliament is the supreme institution and it is a fundamental right of every citizen to have access to its functioning. Excluding the Senate, National Assembly, their secretariats, committees and members as a whole from the definition of public body is tantamount to treating the people’s representatives as being above the rule of law and accountability. The LHC judgement concludes on the note that no such example can be found in any democracy where parliamentarians are considered above the purview of the RTI law, which serves as a tool for ensuring more open and inclusive governance.

Parliament and its bodies are formed after citizens elect their representatives through democratic elections. It seems obvious that such an institution rests on the fundamental premise of accountability and answerability in the public domain. To exclude it from the scope of the RTI law is to make a mockery of democracy and citizens’ rights. As it is, the working in practice of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 more often than not runs afoul of the bureaucracy’s timeless penchant for keeping information in their purview close to their chest and denying it to the ‘hoi polloi’ (this expression from Greek that means ‘many people’ has been given, in English, a negative connotation to signify masses). Now for parliamentarians to wish for a legal sanction to adopt the same attitude and practices would demean the democratic character of parliament and reduce it to a farcical closed circle without even a whiff of the time honoured principles of accountability and answerability. As it is, democracy in Pakistan still has a long way to go before it can be considered to have sunk deep roots. This makes it even more imperative that the best practices of democracy as they have evolved over time be embraced, rather than ‘clever’ ways to avoid transparency, accountability and answerability. It is now for Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani to persuade the private members to withdraw this overtly controversial Bill.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021