ISLAMABAD: The Senate Select Committee discussing the Right to Information Bill, 2016, on Wednesday remained preoccupied with armed forces institutions that use the pretext of national security to withhold information.
The committee has suggested amendments to the bill to ensure that various arms of the armed forces cannot conceal information in matters where human rights violation, corruption and embezzlement were observed.
At the outset, committee chairman Farhatullah Babar observed that armed forces’ institutions never wanted to share information and always sought refuge behind ‘national security’.
“If the defence ministry doesn’t want to give information, it refers to ‘Rawalpindi’. Their reference is given even in cases that have nothing to do with ‘Rawalpindi’,” he said.
Senate panel suggests including army’s welfare, commercial organisations in RTI law’s ambit
Senator Pervaiz Rashid, who was information minister until a few months ago, said that there existed precedent where even the prime minister did not have information and only came to learn about the issues after four or five years had passed.
“In the past, an institution has refused to give information by invoking the cover of ‘Rawalpindi’, although a story about it was published in the Washington Post one and half months before the question was asked,” he said.
Senator Babar said that there were two principles that could be followed to address the issue of hurdles while obtaining information from institutions of the armed forces.
“There is the Johannesburg Principle, and then there are the RTI laws in the region. The [former] says that information related to national security can be restricted, but not stopped, if issues of corruption and human rights are involved,” he said.
“It even states that information cannot be restricted if the public interest is greater than the harm to national security. Indian law says that information about institutions – such as intelligence agencies etc – cannot be shared, but information involving corruption and human rights violations cannot be stopped. The law is the same in Bangladesh,” he said.
“We need to create a balance between national security and other issues. Moreover, the information about commercial interests should not be restricted by saying that they are welfare businesses. Whenever questions are asked about the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and Fauji Foundation, it is said that they are welfare organisations and have no commercial interests,” he said.
Senator Pervaiz Rashid also said that state institutions should provide complete information. He said that when movies were commissioned, the Ministry of Information and tourism departments were asked to provide rest houses and other support.
“Government resources are spent but, despite the fact that a private producer is making the movie, it is not shared whether that movie will promote tourism or not.”
He said the RTI bill, in case of refusal by a state institution, stipulates that the matter will be referred to the RTI commission. “But I suggest that there should also be a parliamentary committee that will be briefed in-camera on the issue,” he said.
However, Mr Babar said that he had observed that the government faces even more pressure that it becomes difficult to resist, so the idea of a parliamentary committee should be dropped.
PTI Senator Shibli Faraz, however, said that the national security was used to hide issues and there was a need to define the concept.
State Minister for Information Maryam Aurangzeb – who was late to the meeting since she was in the Supreme Court for the Panamagate hearing – suggested that both commercial and welfare interests should be included in the bill, so that the information from them could not be restricted.
The committee then decided to include a clause in the bill that will require departments to share information about commercial and welfare institutions. It was also decided that in case of hesitation by a state institution, the minister from the concerned department will look into it and give reasons for why the information should not be shared.
It was also decided that for issues related to corruption or human rights, the minister will not have right to provide reasoning. Mr Babar said that the inclusion of clause will also address the issue of enforced disappearances, because basic human rights include the right to live.
The committee will hold another meeting next week to finalise a draft of the bill.