Islamabad: In passing the Public Interest Disclosures Bill, 2017, the National Assembly has attempted to rectify one of the omissions in the Right to Information draft bill being considered by parliament. The bill aims to provide protection to whistleblowers who make public any corruption, criminal activity or wrongdoing by those in power. Whistleblowers are a vital tool in keeping a check on official misconduct. Employees of conscience who see those in a position of authority abuse their power have a moral duty to speak out, and deserve legal protection for their public service. Whistleblowers should be seen as essential to a functioning democracy. Whether this bill gives that protection to whistleblowers, though, is far from certain. The law allows any person to make a public interest disclosure to the “competent authority”, which will be the person heading the institution accused of corruption or other crimes. It does not specify what course of action to take if those accused also happened to be the “competent authority” themselves. The bill also narrows the definition of whistleblowers by not mentioning or providing any protection to those who leak such information to the media. Celebrated international whistleblowers of the past like Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, to recent cases like that of Edward Snowden and the Panama Papers have involved individuals bypassing state institutions because they knew their voices would be suppressed and punitive action taken against them. If the government is serious about tackling public interest, it will provide protection to those who bypass official channels.
Governments have a tendency to conflate their own personal interest with that of the national interest. Whenever any official wrongdoing is made public, there is always an argument made that the disclosure harms the country. That the bill explicitly prohibits public disclosure of any matters that will affect our sovereignty and integrity or our security, strategic and economic interests creates a large loophole that could be effectively used by the government to silence all whistleblowers. For the law to have any teeth, it would require an independent panel made up of judges and civil society members to determine if a whistleblower deserves protection. The government should also try to err on the side of the whistleblower to build confidence in the law. Previous attempts to encourage whistleblowers, such as a programme launched by Nadra, have come to naught because there is no trust in the government to protect those who reveal the corruption of the most powerful institutions and individuals in the country. This law will only change that if it is accompanied by a change in attitude towards whistleblowers.