Senate passes amended ‘Official Secrets Bill 2023’ amidst controversy

ISLAMABAD (APP): The Senate on Sunday successfully passed ‘The Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023’, marking a pivotal moment in the legislative landscape. The bill, which had faced staunch opposition from various quarters, underwent crucial modifications before achieving passage.
Minister for Law and Justice, Azam Nazir Tarar, presented the bill on behalf of Minister for Interior, Rana Sanaullah Khan, in the house. Notably, the revised version of the bill omitted certain provisions that had granted intelligence agencies the authority to carry out warrantless arrests or searches.
He emphasized that the revised legislation empowers the FIA to conduct investigations into individuals suspected of violating the Official Secrets Act.
He highlighted that the bill no longer includes the amendment labelling an individual as an ‘enemy’ for engaging with foreign agents, a provision that had sparked extensive debates.
Simultaneously, the Senate Standing Committee on Cabinet, chaired by Senator Rana Maqbool Ahmed, presented its comprehensive report on ‘The Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023’. The committee’s report underscored the urgency to amend the antiquated Official Secrets Act of 1923, considering the evolving social context and the necessity to safeguard official documents.
It’s worth mentioning that the bill encountered formidable resistance during its journey through the upper house of parliament. Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani had referred the bill to the relevant standing committee on August 2, following vehement opposition during the initial proceedings.
Both the ruling and opposition benches saw a clash of opinions regarding the bill. The PTI, JUI-F, and the National Party voiced their concerns, while prominent figures such as Senator Raza Rabbani of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Afnan Ullah Khan of the Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz (PML-N) raised objections against proposed amendments to the Official Secrets Act 1923.
The amendment brings forth several critical changes, including Section 3 of the bill that defines various offenses such as approaching, inspecting, or undermining prohibited places with malicious intent.
Additionally, the bill makes it an offense to create, possess, or share any material that could be useful to an enemy of the state.
Section 9 of the amendment outlines severe penalties for incitement, conspiracy, or attempts to commit offenses, with potential imprisonment of up to three years or fines reaching up to one million.
In a groundbreaking move, the bill empowers the FIA to lead investigations, with the investigating officer appointed by the FIA director general. Moreover, a collaborative joint investigation team can be established if the situation necessitates.
Notably, the contentious provision that granted intelligence agencies the power to conduct warrant-less arrests or searches has been removed from the final version of the bill, addressing concerns over potential abuse of power and intrusion into citizens’ privacy.
The passing of ‘The Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023’ heralded a significant stride towards modernizing legislation to effectively protect official information while upholding fundamental rights and principles. This momentous achievement came after rigorous debates and thorough revisions, signaling the government’s commitment to striking a balance between national security and individual liberties.