Sunday, September 21, 2014

Give reasons for seeking information under RTI: Madras HC sets the clock back on transparency

In a serious blow to transparency regime in the country, the Madras High Court has said RTI applicants must give reasons for seeking information as it gave relief to its Registry from disclosing file notings on a complaint against a chief metropolitan magistrate.
A division bench comprising justices N. Paul Vasanthakumar and K. Ravichandrababu said an applicant must disclose the object for which information is sought and also satisfy that such object has a legal backing, a decision which may have far reaching implications on getting information under the RTI Act and which was decried by legal experts and activists.
“If informations (sic) are to be furnished to a person, who does not have any reason or object behind seeking such informations, in our considered view, the intention of the Legislature is not to the effect that such informations are to be given like pamphlets to any person unmindful of the object behind seeking such information,” the bench said.
However, the Legislature while passing the RTI Act has specially incorporated Section 6(2) which says an applicant making request for information “shall not” be required to give any reason for requesting the information. The Madras High Court order does not mention Section 6(2) of the Right to Information Act. “We should not be mistaken as if we are saying something against the intention of the Legislature. What we want to emphasise is that a Legislation, more particularly, the one on hand, must achieve the object, viz, concrete and effective functioning of the public authority with transparency and accountability by providing the information which are under the control of such public authorities,” it said.
Terming the order “illegal”, senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan said it is against “letter and spirit” of the Act. “It’s a self-serving order by the High Court in line with a number of earlier orders of High Courts and Supreme Court virtually preventing administrative transparency of the court,” he told PTI. RTI activist C.J.  Karira said the judgement strikes a body blow to the RTI Act since its tantamount to striking down of Sec 6(2) without explicitly stating so. Noted RTI expert Shekhar Singh also said that the Supreme Court has defined the Right to Information as a fundamental right and to exercise it one need not give any reason. He said by definition, fundamental right means something which is a right that you have irrespective of any condition.
“There are two problems with the order. It is in violation of the law. RTI specifically asks no reasons need be given for seeking information. Secondly, it is also in violation of earlier rulings of the Supreme Court saying it is fundamental right,” he said. He said by this order the High Court has overturned earlier apex court rulings because the moment they said one has to give reasons for seeking information his or her fundamental right is being denied. Similar views were expressed by Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative who said the order is “complete violation of the RTI Act”.
“The Right to Information is a fundamental right and it is available to every citizen who is born in India. You are not supposed to give reasons for exercising those fundamental rights. The Right to Information is recognised by the Supreme Court as being part of Right to free speech and expression under Article 19 (1)(a) and also a part of Right to Life under Article 21,” Mr. Nayak said.
He said it is a “big surprise” and “travesty of existing jurisprudence” if anybody says that a citizen must prove why he or she wants a particular information which ordinarily a public authority would have made public on its own.