Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Does new Right to Information circular endanger activists?

A recent department of personnel and training (DoPT) memorandum, directing all ministries and government departments to upload applications received under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and replies given on their websites, has opened a Pandora's box. 

Owing to lack of clarity in this circular, several RTI activists and legal experts fear the process may result in disclosure of applicants' names and endanger them. Some others, though, say such a disclosure is in the interest of transparency. 

Uploading RTI applications and replies (including appeals) is expected to bring in transparency. Further, it will avoid queries on information already available in public domain. However, the DoPT memorandum dated October 21 makes no specific mention of whether information seekers' personal details will be revealed while uploading their queries, thus sparking off fears. 

If names are revealed, there are fears that RTI activists could face attacks. Till date, around 42 RTI activists have been murdered and over 300 assaulted, says Venkatesh Nayak, RTI activist and programme coordinator at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. 

"India doesn't have overarching privacy laws like the UK's Data Protection Act," says Nayak. In the UK, replies to queries given to applicants under the Freedom of Information Act (akin to our RTI Act) are uploaded with applicants' names blanked out. However, RTI applicants' identity could possibly be protected by an earlier DoPT memorandum issued on January 6, based on a Calcutta high court order. 

This order held that applicants need not disclose any personal details while filing RTI queries, other than their post office (PO) box numbers. Government bodies could insist on personal details, only if they are faced any difficulty with the PO box number. In this scenario, though, the court stated: "It would be the solemn duty of the authorities to hide such information, particularly from their websites so that people at large would not know of the applicant's personal details." 

However, a high court order, unlike that of the Supreme Court is not the law of the land. "DoPT's memorandum based on the Calcutta high court order and its recent memorandum are only binding on the DoPT. It would only have 'persuasive powers' on other government departments and ministries. Thus, a ministry can choose to upload RTI queries with or without applicants' names or choose not to upload any RTI query, because DoPT's OMs strictly speaking are only guidelines and not law," says Nayak. 

TOI spoke with a few officials from various ministries who agree that a clarification regarding disclosure of the applicant's name would be helpful. 

"If India wants to protect RTI activists' identity, it must amend the RTI Act or pass a government-notified rule on the matter," adds Nayak. 

Opinion is divided on the need to do so. "Responses to RTI queries are public documents. Information should be denied only as per exemptions in the Act and no general exemption can be sought for the names of RTI applicants," says Shailesh Gandhi, RTI activist and former Central Information Commissioner. 

"Everyone who takes on powerful interests, whether or not they use RTI, put themselves in danger. Why should RTI activists have separate protection? We are trying to create better systems for all and not create a new class of VIPs," says Gandhi. 

"If very sensitive information is asked for we are aware of the fact that it is usually not provided by the PIO and during the process of appeals the applicant's name is leaked to the affected party. Unfortunately, this will continue irrespective of whether peoples' names are on government websites. A very few (probably less than 1% to 2%) do use RTI to harass officers or get a favour. Displaying the RTIs would deter them," he says.

Source:-The Economic Times

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