RTI Users: Blackmailers and Extortionists?
In a recent Right to Information (RTI) related case filed by Anjali Bhardwaj, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is reported to have said on 16 December 2019: “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 Mathews 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 the Parliament. It might also be pointed out that there is almost no known instance of government getting paralysed in legitimate work. RTI may be an impediment for corrupt or arbitrary use of power. 
 
RTI is a fundamental right of citizens under Article 19 (1)(a). By a plethora of Supreme Court judgments it has been recognized 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 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, he can make allegations against any person or institution and this could do some damage. Allegation, innuendoes and charges can also be published and this can do greater damage. The publishing may be on the traditional media, web portals or social media. 
 
When allegations are published it can do great damage and harm. Yet, in the last 70 years, the scope of right to speech and publishing have greatly expanded. That sometimes these have 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 extortionists hurled at the class of people engaging in free speech or publishing. 
 
However, within 14 years since the RTI Act, a very strong narrative is being built to condemn Right to Information.  RTI users have been labelled blackmailers and extortionists. 
 
Let us examine a little closely, what a citizen can do using RTI. He can only seek information, which is on records. 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 a corrupt action 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, anti-corruption bureau (ACB), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Central Vigilance Commission (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 his pocket? 
 
There is something that reflects poorly on our society, which 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 & training (DoPT) and many state governments have issued instructions for this. But this is not being implemented since this would expose the wrong and illegal actions. 
 
Citizens, 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 but starts.
 
This is ‘rule of the people, by the people, for the people.’ 
 
The citizens fulfill their role as the rulers of the nation by using RTI. 
 
(Shailesh Gandhi served as Central Information Commissioner under the RTI Act, 2005, during 18 September 2008 to 6 July 2012. He is a graduate in Civil Engineering from IIT-Bombay. Before becoming a full time RTI activist in 2003, he sold his packaging business. In 2008, he was conferred the Nani Palkhivala Memorial Award for civil liberties.)
 
  • Like this story? Get our top stories by email.

    User 

    COMMENTS

    P M Ravindran

    5 months ago

    Can we have a CJI who is way behind backward in applying logic to real life issues? 'the administration is almost coming to a standstill because nobody is willing to take decisions'- my foot. There seems to be no dearth of decisions that are bad in all respects-law, logic, ethics, norms , call it whatever you might.

    REPLY

    Meenal Mamdani

    In Reply to P M Ravindran 5 months ago

    Yes. I agree with you. Decisions that benefit the powerful rather than the ordinary people are taken swiftly.

    I feel sad that we citizens have become so cynical about the govt in general but also large corporations and independent institutions like universities.

    For all the negative news that is prevalent now, we must not forget that we still have honest people at all levels of our society who have been working as per their job descriptions. Without such ordinary law abiding people our society would not function and India would become a failed state. The crucial question is how to strengthen them.

    m.prabhu.shankar

    5 months ago

    Excellent Sir

    Harish

    5 months ago

    Very well explained.

    J. P. Shah

    5 months ago

    Only wrong doers need be worried of RTI. There is no need to be worried for honest and pro citizen officer. He will be appreciated if his honest and efficient work comes to light by RTI

    Meenal Mamdani

    5 months ago

    It is very worrisome that the CJI resorts to such blanket statements without providing any data.
    I used to think that India should allow a CJI to have at least a 2 year tenure, irrespective of age, so that she/he is allowed to take part in important decisions.
    After this display of animosity against a fundamental right, Right to Information, perhaps it is not such a bad idea to let CJIs serve only until her/his age of retirement. And thank goodness our CJIs and justices to the Supreme Courts are not life appointments as in USA.

    RTI Requires Certain Guidelines and Safeguards for Providing Information: SC
    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.”
     
    Section 4(2) of the RTI Act states,
     
    “(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.
     
    You may also want to read...
     
  • Like this story? Get our top stories by email.

    User 

    COMMENTS

    P M Ravindran

    5 months ago

    '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.'- is that a misreport or the CJI actually said that? If he had actually said that I am sure that he should read at least the Preamble of the RTI Act which unambiguously states that the purpose of the Act is to 'contain corruption and to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed'. Does that link all citizens to all the issues for which an RTI can be filed.

    By the way, our judiciary also keeps bragging of its open court as a demonstration of transparent proceedings. But then RTI Act has exposed how hollow this claim is when a former CJI declared, illegally, of course, that his office was out of purview of the RTI Act. And it took the apex court almost a decade to nail that lie. Again, no punishment to the CJI. We know that a citizen who lies in court can be punished for perjury but when a CJI himself lies, can it be condoned? If it is then it is an awfully shameful rile of law that we have. The natural law is the higher you are the heavier you fall. So in the case of the CJI lying, the punishment should have been not less than twice the maximum punishment for perjury.

    Ramesh Bajaj

    5 months ago

    As an ordinary citizen, I am unable to comprehend how RTI can be used for blackmail.
    It should be used to ensure that public servants do their duty diligently.

    Harish

    5 months ago

    It is my experience that PIO's will resort to frequent stonewalling, FAA's will uphold the orders of PIOs on the 45th day or even surpass the 45 day limit and the Second Appeals/Complaints will not be taken up for at least one year due to the backlog. Authorities need to make maximum use of Section 4, punish PIOs who stonewall and eliminate the FAA concept for smoother functioning of RTI Act.

    jaideep shirali

    5 months ago

    I think the CJI needs to be informed that corrupt bureaucrats, if at all, don't take decisions because of RTI. Our public bodies are so riddled with corruption, that whatever happens, no single bureaucrat or politician ever gets convicted. I would be glad if the CJI himself could analyse the percentage of convictions and then tell us whether the use of RTI is blackmail or an attempt at disclosing the ugly truth.

    Sandeep More

    5 months ago

    We need a more responsible and transparent Govt

    ramchandran vishwanathan

    5 months ago

    Its high time Judiciary makes a conscious effort in reducing the time frame for closure of cases .We are following the British Raj norms after 70 + years of independence . Take responsibility & make an impact

    Sreekumar Prabhakaran

    5 months ago

    लो कल्लो बात! जो पूछा जाता है उसका जवाब ठीक से, समयबद्ध मिलता नहीं, अब उस पर और पाबंदियों की बातें। इस का (CAA) के कोहराम में कहीं RTI एक्ट का बंधिया न हो जाए।

    RTI is Inbuilt within Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, says Bombay HC
    In a major boost to transparency, the Bombay High Court recently held that the Right to Information (RTI) is an implicit and an inbuilt Right under Freedom of Speech and Expression as declared under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. While making this observation, the Court directed the state government to fill up vacant posts of its staff, including information officers in Maharashtra, says a report from Bar & Bench.
     
    Quoting the division bench of Justices SC Dharmadhikari and RI Chagla, the report says, “The enactment is in larger public interest. It is not as if the right to information is a right derived by the citizens from the RTI Act 2005. Be it known to everybody that right to information is implicit and inbuilt in the right and freedom guaranteed to a citizen under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The right to free speech and expression includes within it the right to obtain information.”
     
    The bench was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Public Concern for Governance Trust (PGT), seeking an effective enforcement and implementation of the RTI Act.
     
    A bench consisting of Justice SC Dharmadhikari and RI Chagla observed in their judgement “That is how this constitutionally recognised and permitted right is made meaningful and its enforcement is now serving a larger public purpose. It is only the enforcement machinery which is created by the RTI Act.” 
     
    Former central information commissioner and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi, however, says, “The High Court has in the past reiterated this point over and again.
     
    However, the courts should treat all three fundamental right, ‘right to publish, right to freedom and expression and right to information equally’. Any restriction that applies on one should apply on all and any enhancement of one should apply on all.” 
     
    In light of that, the court observed that while the state government has been handicapped for want of staff, with the new recruitment rules of 2018 and also based on certain decision of the Supreme Court, they should be able to fill up the vacant positions. 
     
    The state government assured the court that it would fill up the vacancies arising from time to time. In their affidavit submitted to the high court, they mentioned that out of the sanctioned posts (138 in number) 124 have been filled and only 14 are remaining vacant.  
     
    With regards to RTI and denial of information due to vacant positions, the HC in their response to the affidavit filed by the state government noted that while the process is on-going merely because there are vacancies, the state government or the machinery will not deny information to the members of the public on something which is to be made available to public otherwise. 
     
    Advocate Jamshed Mistry and Dipesh Siroya represented PCGT in the PIL.
     
  • Like this story? Get our top stories by email.

    User 

    We are listening!

    Solve the equation and enter in the Captcha field.
      Loading...
    Close

    To continue


    Please
    Sign Up or Sign In
    with

    Email
    Close

    To continue


    Please
    Sign Up or Sign In
    with

    Email

    BUY NOW

    online financial advisory
    Pathbreakers
    Pathbreakers 1 & Pathbreakers 2 contain deep insights, unknown facts and captivating events in the life of 51 top achievers, in their own words.
    online financia advisory
    The Scam
    24 Year Of The Scam: The Perennial Bestseller, reads like a Thriller!
    Moneylife Online Magazine
    Fiercely independent and pro-consumer information on personal finance
    financial magazines online
    Stockletters in 3 Flavours
    Outstanding research that beats mutual funds year after year
    financial magazines in india
    MAS: Complete Online Financial Advisory
    (Includes Moneylife Online Magazine)
    FREE: Your Complete Family Record Book
    Keep all the Personal and Financial Details of You & Your Family. In One Place So That`s Its Easy for Anyone to Find Anytime
    We promise not to share your email id with anyone