Citizens, media and courts must do their utmost to prevent suffocation of RTI Act, writes Shailesh Gandhi

  • In the past 70 years, the scope of the right to speech and publishing has greatly expanded

  • That these have sometimes been used to blackmail someone cannot be ruled out

  • We do not have the label 'blackmailer' or 'extortionist' hurled at the class of people engaging in free speech or publishing

  • However, within 14 years since its introduction, a very strong narrative is being built to condemn the Right to Information

In a recent Right to Information (RTI)-related case filed by Anjali Bhardwaj, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde is reported to have said on 16 December, "We are not against the Right to Information. But there is a need for guidelines. It cannot be an unbridled right."

It has also been stated that there should be locus for seeking information and that the administration is almost coming to a standstill because nobody is willing to take decisions. The Supreme Court should read Justice KK Mathew's pronouncement and many of its judgments given before the RTI Act, 2005 was implemented. The bridle is provided by Article 19 (2) and the guidelines are given in the law passed by Parliament. It may also be pointed out that there is almost no known instance of government being paralysed in legitimate work.

The RTI can be an impediment for corrupt or arbitrary use of power.

 Citizens, media and courts must do their utmost to prevent suffocation of RTI Act, writes Shailesh Gandhi

Representational image. Reuters

RTI is a fundamental right of citizens under Article 19 (1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. By a plethora of Supreme Court judgments, it has been recognised that Article 19 (1)(a) includes the right to free speech, right to publishing and right to information. The only permissible restrictions on the right under Article 19 (1)(a) are given in Article 19 (2). It stands to reason that the restrictions or curbs on the right to free speech, publishing and information must be uniform, and any curbs on one will apply to the others. Besides, the rights and importance of the media arise primarily from the fact that it is the medium through which citizens' right to be informed is met. Hence the citizen's right to information cannot be rated lower than the media's right to publish.

Let us now look at the charge that RTI is becoming a tool of blackmailers and extortionists. When a person speaks, s/he can make allegations against any person or institution and this could do some damage. Allegation, innuendos and charges can also be published and these can do greater damage. The act of publishing may be on traditional media, web portals or social media. When allegations are published, they can do great damage and harm.

Yet, in the past 70 years, the scope of the right to speech and publishing has greatly expanded. That these have sometimes been used to blackmail someone cannot be ruled out. Besides, the practice of 'paid news' is well-founded. But nobody has espoused the cause of constricting these. We do not have the label 'blackmailer' or 'extortionist' hurled at the class of people engaging in free speech or publishing. However, within 14 years, a very strong narrative is being built to condemn the Right to Information.

RTI users have been labelled 'blackmailers' and 'extortionists'. Let us examine a little closely, what a citizen can do using RTI. S/he can only seek information that is on the record. Some harm may come only if the records show an illegal or corrupt act. It is alleged that some people get information about such actions using RTI and then blackmail the wrongdoers. While such acts of blackmailing are certainly undesirable, this can be done by speaking or publishing as well.

Let us look at this from another angle. A person who engages in wrongdoing or corrupt actions is depriving society or an individual. It should be the work of society and the government to stop such undesirable actions. Our entire mechanism of vigilance departments — the Anti-Corruption Bureau, Central Bureau of Investigation, CVC and Lokpal — is not able to expose and stop this. Many RTI users expose the wrongs and share the information publicly. Some may use the information for undesirable personal enrichment.

However, should our concern be more about the wrongdoer who is unfairly robbing society, or on someone who may be picking the wrongdoer's pocket?

It is something that reflects poorly on our society that expresses greater concern about the pickpocket than the wrongdoer. The truth is all our vigilance measures have not brought down the harassment and bribe extraction from the middle and lower economic classes. We must recognise that our best vigilance monitors are the citizens using RTI, who have also unearthed some major scams.

RTI activists have been persuading the government to put most information on the website as per the mandate of Section 4 of the RTI Act. If governments go completely paperless and digital, it would be easy to put most information on the website. At the very least, most of the information and dashboards presently on computers should be available to citizens. This is not being done.

Another simple way to stop all blackmailing using RTI information would be to put all RTI applications and responses on the websites in a searchable manner. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) and many state governments have issued instructions for this. But these are not being implemented since they would expose all the wrong and illegal actions. Citizens, the media and courts should put pressure on the government to implement this properly. Citizens need to get accountability from the government and for this they need to get more information.

We must get accountability from our government by using RTI. Our job does not end with voting; in fact, that's where it begins. This is 'rule of the people, by the people, for the people'. The citizens fulfil their role as the rulers of the nation by using RTI.

The author is a former Central Information Commissioner

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2019 12:42:26 IST