RAI bill: a way out of the darkness

Aug 24, 2017
DEMOCRACY dies in the darkness — the new motto of The Washington Post is also an easy aphorism for governments struggling to identify the right balance between transparency and secrecy. In what may prove to be a significant victory for transparency and accountability of public authorities, the Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved the Right of Access to Information Bill, 2017. The National Assembly, too, will have to approve the bill before it can become law, but unanimous approval in the upper house suggests that a giant step forward has been taken. The key will be for parliament to not yield to the objections of public authorities that may fear what a true and substantive right to information regime may achieve for the cause of democracy and public accountability.
The provincial experience with RTI laws has revealed many flaws. Too many exemptions, especially in vague and blanket terms, for public officials seeking to shield information from the public; cumbersome application processes and few public awareness programmes; and an appeals process that favours public officials rather than the common folk seeking to access information. In the Senate, which has a number of members skilled in legislation, governance and public affairs, the approach to drafting the RAI Bill appears to have been a more sensible, public-minded one: start with the principle that maximum information is a public good; keep exemptions to a minimum; and put in place a responsive appeals process. If the law is not watered down in the National Assembly and if the new RTI regime at the federal level is made known to the public through sustained awareness-creation, it could go some way to address the unnecessary opacity of government.
The desperate need for a meaningful RTI regime at the federal level can be gauged from the fact that the Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002, which the new law would seek to replace, is largely unheard of in the public domain. Indeed, the FIO 2002 quickly emerged as a law designed more to continue the suppression of information than its greater dissemination. The range of subjects designated as public record in the Senate bill indicates its scope and potential effectiveness: policies and guidelines, the disposal of property, the expenditure of public body, performance, duties, functions, grant of licences, benefits, privileges and contracts. In theory, an individual will not only be able to determine a public official’s duties but could also demand information pertaining to the execution of those responsibilities. Strong RTI laws have in several developing nations helped strengthen citizens’ rights, expose corruption and improve governance. Ahead of a general election and at a time the national discourse is focused on corruption in government, a new RTI law can to some extent demonstrate that parliament does act in the public interest.
Dawn News, August 24, 2017

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