10/22/2021

Pakistan journalists, parliamentarians lament restricted information despite RTI laws

Pakistan passed the Right of Access to Information Act in 2017 but still government institutions remain unwilling to share information with the public at large.

September 28, 2021, Islamabad — The Parliamentary Commission for Human Rights (PCHR) in collaboration with  National Press Club (NPC) and Rawalpindi Islamabad Union of Journalists (RIUJ) organised an National Seminar to commemorate World Right to Know and Access to Information Day, celebrated globally on this day.

At the event, members of parliament and senior journalists were present to address various challenges in acquiring information that media faces in the country.

Hamid Mir, senior journalist, shared at the event at National Press Club that the Senate, the upper house of Parliament, denied sharing details of the number of janitorial staff members employed there along with their salaries. Its administration simply said that the law does not apply to it.

Similarly, he added, Anti Corruption Establishment Punjab declined to reveal the number of cases it has received so far, and how many of them have been solved. The Civil Aviation Authority was asked about the number of sanitary workers it has employed and it said that it cannot provide this information as it is a ‘security agency’.

Mir further said at the event that every citizen of Pakistan has the right to know information related to our public institutions but they remain hesitant to provide it. “They always have a number of excuses.” He claimed that ruling parties in Pakistan passed the Right to Information laws – the PTI government passed it in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2013, PPP in Sindh the same year and PML-N in Punjab in 2017 – because they were bound to do so by international conventions and obligations.

A big hurdle to the lack of implementation to RTI laws is the Official Secrets Act, 1923, which was passed by the British. Many organisations and institutions decline to share information citing this act. Mir said that we cannot move towards transparency till political parties and parliamentarians sit together and work towards finishing this contradiction in our laws.

On this point, PPP Senator Raza Rabbani said that he slightly disagrees with the journalist as he believes that the Official Secrets Act has become the governing law in Pakistan. “The country’s ruling elite is using the government for its own agenda.”

PTI Senator Faisal Javed, while speaking at the event, focused only on the supposed misconceptions surrounding the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) which has attracted criticism from media and civil society alike. He claimed that Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and Secretary Farrukh Habib have only presented a concept note on the authority.

“There is no draft or any law,” he claimed, adding that their objective was to take feedback from all the stakeholders. Our discussion should be on whether another authority should be formed for the regularisation of digital and electronic media or whether our objectives can be achieved through other ways.

Defending the PMDA, he remarked that fake news is becoming a big problem in the country and it needs to be fixed. “We need immediate legislation on it.” He further promised that Prime Minister Imran Khan would never take away the right of journalists to express their freedom of speech.

Nasir Zaidi of the PFUJ pointed out that he has read two concept papers and two draft ordinances on the PMDA. “Who does the government think they are deceiving? If you want to curtail press and censor media, then do it. Don’t make statements which are untrue,” he said.

He said that journalists are united in their decision to reject the PMDA. “We will continue to protest until the government takes back its proposal,” he added.

Three PTI MNAs, including Ghazala Saifi and Zille Huma, also spoke at the event. They congratulated media workers on the International Day for Universal Access to Information, and requested them to continue reporting without any bias, claiming that PTI is committed to protecting their rights.

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