The federal government on Thursday expressed its reservations before the Lahore High Court regarding the disclosure of Toshakhana gifts, maintaining that the move could cause "unnecessary media hype, which might be potentially damaging to the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations".
The Toshakhana, administrated by the Cabinet Division, is a repository that serves the purpose of maintaining, preserving, and storing the gifts received by public officeholders. It caught media attention after former prime minister and PTI chief Imran Khan was accused of hiding details of the gifts he received during his tenure.
The government’s statement was submitted to a single-judge bench of the high court, during the hearing of a petition to make Toshakhana gift records public.
The statement quoted Section 15 of the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, which provides that “information may be exempt if its disclosures would be likely to cause grave and significant damage to the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations”.
The government argued that “various requests by private citizens seeking Toshakhana information under Right of Access to Information Act, 2017 were declined by the Cabinet Division in terms of PMO’s letter and Sections ibid”.
“Aggrieved by the decisions, the applicants filed appeals to the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC), on which directions were given to the Cabinet Division to provide information to the appellants. On May 24, 2022, the PIC also passed adverse orders of docking of one-month salary of the cabinet secretary.”
It continued that the Cabinet Division later challenged orders passed by PIC in the Islamabad High Court and the hearing of the case was due on February 6.
The statement furthered that after litigations by private citizens for the disclosure of Toshakhana records, the Cabinet Division has continuously been appraising the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) through summaries on a half dozen times proposing disclosure of [the] requested information in the light of the observations of the court”.
Read Reasons sought for not sharing Toshakhana gifts' details
Moreover, the PMO constituted an Inter-Ministerial Committee to formulate a new Toshakhana policy which proposed the Toshakhana Procedure, 2022 and a draft of the Toshakhana Bill was submitted to the PMO for approval to place it before the federal cabinet for a “wholesome discussion” in Cabinet for finalizing a transparent and fair policy.
The government prayed that the case be adjourned and ample time be allowed for the federal cabinet’s decision on the new policy and bill.
A letter from the PMO furthered that the premier observed that the “information solicited by the requester is already covered under Section 15(1) of the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002”.
LHC’s Justice Asim Hafeez sought by February 7, an affidavit from Toshakhana’s head of department to establish how the details of Toshakhana's gifts were secret.
“The court will not pass orders to make the details of these gifts public if the court is satisfied with the explanation of why gifts of Toshakahana are not disclosed,” Justice Asim observed.
Addressing the representatives who appeared on behalf of the respondent, the judge asked if the only reason for not disclosing records was that it could create media hype.
Read more Imran withdraws petition from IHC
Justice Asim also asked how the country’s security and international relations would be affected if the details of the Toshakhana were made public.
The petition was filed by a private citizen, Munir Ahmed, through senior advocate Azhar Siddique.
The petition implored that the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on April 20, 2022, had directed the cabinet to disclose all information and specifications in relation to all the gifts received by Imran Khan, during his prime ministership.
Following this order, the petitioner sought information about all the gifts bought, withdrawn and taken away by the prime ministers and presidents of Pakistan from 1947. Additionally, the petitioner also pursued information with respect to the market value of the gifts, the assessed value of the gift and the amount paid by the receivers.
The petitioner maintained that the exercise would ensure that citizens have complete access to the entire record of Toshakhana, thus aiding the process of fairness, accountability and transparency.
Article 19 (A) of the Constitution empowered Pakistanis by making access to information a justifiable right of the people rather than being largesse bestowed by the state at its whim. Article 19(A) of the Constitution has, thus, enabled every citizen to become independent power centres which, heretofore, have been in control of information on matters of public importance. All information that can be of any public importance must be made available to the general public.
Also read IHC to hear plea seeking Toshakhana details since 1947
According to the petition it was imperative for the sake of justice and principles of fairness that information and details of all the gifts that have been received by former presidents and prime ministers be unveiled as it was a matter of great public importance.
The petition furthered that details of Toshakhana gifts received under the premiership of Imran Khan were disclosed by the Cabinet Division, however, information on other leaders’ gifts was never revealed which was an “act of malafide”.
Advocate Azhar Siddique implored in the petition that the petitioner has issued a letter to the president, prime minister, secretary Cabinet Division, Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, Interior Division and the Chairperson of the PIC for the provision of information as well as compliance of the judgment of the court.