Flagging 'fear' and 'abuse of Right to Information (RTI) Act' by vested interests that has potential to lead to blackmail and extortion, the Supreme Court (SC) on Monday observed that there is a need for certain guidelines and safeguards for providing information under the Act. However, as it is known, very few public authorities adhere to Section 4 of the RTI Act, which mandates suo moto and proactive disclosure of information in public domain. Since, public authorities shy away from disclosing information in public domain, citizens have no option but to file RTI applications to seek information.
A bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde and comprising Justice BR Gavai and Justice Surya Kant, said, "Why every member should get information, for example, if someone needs an axe to grind against an officer .... We are asking methods to stop abuse of RTI, why do you think it happens?"
The Chief Justice said the people who are in no way connected to an issue file RTI, and this potentially sometimes leads to criminal intimidation, which is a nice word for blackmail.
"We are not against the right to information. But there is need for guidelines. It cannot be an unbridled right," the Chief Justice said.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, who was representing RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj in the matter, contended that officials who are not corrupt need not fear anything. However, the bench observed that it had become a trend for people to identify themselves as an RTI activist.
Chief Justice Bobde even asked, whether filing RTI is a profession. The Chief Justice said there may be innumerable cases of blackmail and extortion and, if there is a cognizable offence, then people concerned should file a complaint with the anti-corruption bureau.
Pune-based RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar feels there is a need to define what is blackmail and the process of blackmailing. He says, “The so-called use of RTI for blackmailing is a transaction between two thieves. One is a robber (information supplier) and the other a pick pocket (information seeker). Both are liable for punishment. But to save the robbers by labelling all RTI users 'blackmailers' is not acceptable. If supplier is innocent there is no need of fear for him. However, if the SC at all wants to frame some guidelines, it should order public authorities for implementation of Section 4 of RTI.”
“(2) It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub-section (1) to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.
(3) For the purposes of sub-section (1), every information shall be disseminated widely and in such form and manner which is easily accessible to the public.”
The Bench has also asked the Centre to fill up all vacancies in the central information commission (CIC) within three months. The apex court also directed that the Centre to publish the names of the members of the search committee to be put up on the website in two weeks, after it was told that the committee was constituted on 14th December.
When advocate Prashant Bhushan pointed out that several states have not complied with the SC order, the Bench asked him to file a contempt plea against states who have failed to comply with its order.
Last month, the apex court had asked the Centre and eight states o file a status report regarding compliance with the judgement given on 15 February 2019. The eight state governments are: Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat.
As on 6 November 2019, four posts of information commissioners are vacant and more than 33,000 appeals/complaints are pending at the CIC. At that time, Ms Bhardwaj, one of the petitioners in the SC, had said, "“The backlog of cases has been rising every month and it takes several months, even years, for matters to be heard. On the directions of the SC, the Central government had issued an advertisement in January 2019, inviting applications for filling the four vacancies. However, the appointments have not been made till date.”
“The government had not disclosed the composition of the search committee or selection committee, details of applications received in response to the advertisement or the criteria adopted for shortlisting of applications. In fact, the department of personnel & training (DoPT) denied access to this information under the RTI Act, claiming that these were exempt under Section 8(1)(i), which deals with cabinet papers and is not related to such matters,” Ms Bhardwaj had stated.
Ms Bhardwaj, Commodore (Retd) Lokesh Batra and Amrita Johri have filed the petition. They were represented by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan and advocates Pranav Sachdeva and Rahul Gupta.
The next hearing on this matter will be held in February 2020.
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