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EDITORIAL: Speaking at the Second Law-Bridge Workshop on Superior Court Reporting, where he launched the Pakistan Quarterly Report, Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa emphasised the importance of the public’s right to information referring to a popular judicial phrase in the US, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

The Supreme Court, he said, was releasing the first quarterly report as part of its duty to better serve the people of Pakistan, and its commitment to providing information and making meaningful the fundamental right to information as provided in Article 19-A of the Constitution. It is a welcome step towards making the working of the apex court transparent, what matters most from the public perspective though, are its judgments and orders that speak for themselves.

Article 19-A says “every citizens shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.” Then there is the federal Right to Information Act as well as similar legislation enacted by the provinces.

All these laws are meant to provide members of the public access to information to guard against arbitrary decisions, favouritism, financial wrongdoing or other issues of suspected misconduct in government departments. Understandably, access is restricted where classified information, national security issues or personal bank accounts are involved.

Yet more often than not, such requests are fiercely resisted on one or the other pretext. It may be recalled that not long ago the federal government had refused to entertain a query about the gifts high public office holders had been receiving on official visits abroad on the flimsy pretext that it would affect diplomatic relations with friendly countries. In many other instances citizens have been denied the constitutional right to know. Can we now hope that from now on the court will take a strict view of public interest cases seeking transparency in governance?

In his address to the event, Justice Athar Minallah expressed concern over freedom of expression restrictions. It came under attack as far back, he recalled, as August 11, 1947 when speech of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was blacked out.

In that famous speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan the Founding Father had laid out his vision of a multi-cultural, modern, forward looking state for the new Muslim homeland. But soon after his demise the civil-military bureaucracy set out to invalidate it censoring his speech to serve their narrow, transient interests.

Further illustrating his point, Justice Minallah said that Pakistan was dismembered because there was no freedom of expression then, “we were not aware what was happening in the erstwhile eastern wing,” since the inception of Pakistan.

Pointing to another familiar but disgraceful practice the honourable justice said that whenever a politician became weak, the entire system turned against him. Sadly, little has changed all these years. Exercising the right to disagree with those in power - a core value in any democratic, fair society - can still entail serious consequences. Sunlight surely is the best disinfectant, but few in power seem to be interested in disinfecting the system.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

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