EDITORIAL: The issue refuses to go away despite the Cabinet Division's best efforts not to disclose details, sought by a private citizen via the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC), of the gifts Prime Minister Imran Khan may have received from foreign governments during his visits abroad over the last three years. The PIC had directed the Cabinet Division to provide the requested information, complete with description/specification of each gift, details about the gifts retained by the PM and the rules under which gifts thus received were retained. Instead of furnishing the requisite information, the Cabinet Division's response to the PIC was mounting of a legal challenge in the Islamabad High Court.
Hearing on Wednesday a petition filed by the government against the PIC, Justice Miangul Aurangzeb advised the former to "reconsider" its decision to keep the information confidential. The government, he said, should not feel shy about making such details public. The excuses it has trotted out in defence of its stance, such as that public disclosure could affect national security issues or displease gift givers, make little sense. In fact, invoking the Right to Information Act, 2017, private citizens have been able in the recent past to obtain information about 'Toshakhana' (official gifts depositary). Consequently, former president Asif Ali Zardari, ex prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Yousuf Raza Gilani have faced indictments in accountability courts primarily for holding on to expensive vehicles on payment of just 15 percent of their market value. Disclosure of details in those cases is not known to have caused any harm to Pakistan's relations with other countries. There is no reason why things at present should be any different. Besides, PM Khan is not only an indefatigable campaigner against corruption and corrupt practices he is widely seen as a man of integrity. The government stance in the present case can cause serious harm to that image. The right of access to information, which empowers people to make governments more accountable to the people, must be respected. All involved would be wise to pay heed to Justice Miangul Aurangzeb's counsel before any damage is done.
It is worth noting that as per the legal procedure for acceptance and disposal of gifts recipients can keep them on payment of 50 percent of the value exceeding the basic exemption of Rs 30,000. No exemption, however, is available in the case of antiques and gifts of historical value. They are to be properly catalogued and displayed at prominent government-owned buildings. It is all the more necessary, therefore, that details of all such articles are known to the people. Failure to do so can only give rise to suspicions or accusations that may or may not be rooted in reality.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021