Granting additional time for the federal government to respond, single-member bench maintains right to information cannot be denied
Gifts to heads of state are not their personal property and belong to the entire nation, Justice Mian Gul Hassan Aurangzeb of the Islamabad High Court said on Wednesday while hearing a petition against the Pakistan Information Commission’s demand to make public information on the gifts received by Prime Minister Imran Khan since assuming office.
Last month, the Cabinet Division filed a petition before the IHC claiming that a Pakistan Information Commission order seeking details of the gifts presented to the prime minister was “illegal, without lawful authority.” The initial PIC order had been issued in response to an application by one Abrar Khalid, who had sought details of the gifts received by Khan under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017.
In its petition, the Cabinet Division maintained that details of the gifts received by Khan did not fall within the ambit of the right to information law. Referring to a letter dated April 4, 1993—24 years prior to the promulgation of the Right to Access to Information Act, 2017—it claimed details of the Toshakhana were “classified/secret” and could not be provided to the public.
Special Assistant to the P.M. on Political Communication Shahbaz Gill, in a statement, defended the government’s demands for secrecy, claiming that releasing lists of gifts and opening them up for comparison was considered “inappropriate,” especially by other Islamic countries.
Claiming that Khan deposited all gifts to the Toshakhana, he said that the premier retained some gifts only after paying for them. However, he did not clarify what funds had been deposited with the Toshakhana, or what gifts Khan had chosen to retain.
During Wednesday’s hearing, the IHC questioned why there was any restriction on making every gift public. If some country has given a necklace as a gift, said the court as an example, what harm is there in making it public. “Why is the government embarrassing itself by not giving information about the gifts given by other countries?” it said, adding that if the gifts were of significance, they could be displayed in museums. “The government should make public all the gifts received from other countries during the last 10 years,” said Justice Aurangzeb.
At the court’s questioning, Assistant Attorney-General Attiqur Rehman Saddiqui requested more time to secure instructions from the federal government. He claimed that in the current era of “hybrid warfare,” people could make videos of the gifts and prompt ridicule.
The bench, while granting time for the federal government’s version, maintained that access to public information could not be denied in this age.