Friday, October 24, 2014

Right to information online: A "good step", but activists warn it would make whistleblowers "vulnerable"

By Our Representative
Controversy has broken out among India's right to information (RTI) activists over the latest order of the Government of India's Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), released on October 20, 2014, which allows all ministries and departments to "facilitate uploading of RTI applications and appeals" on their respective websites, even as providing links of replies through a URL. Suggesting that it was being implemented by the DoPT on a pilot basis, and has proved successful, the order says, however, that the "RTI applications and appeals received and their responses relating to the personal information of an individual may not be disclosed if they do not serve any public purpose."
Already, whether to upload the applications, appeals and their response from the officials has been left to the respective public authorities looking into RTI applications, which has become a major source of concern. While some activists suggest that leaving things to the government officials to upload selective applications and their replies is discriminatory, others argue, disclosing names of individuals filing applications would “infringe upon” their privacy. More, it might lead to a situation whereby certain powerful sections may blackmail individuals seeking information.
Even then, many activists say, the order has certain “positive elements”. Pankti Jog of the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP), Gujarat’s premier RTI organization, believes it is a welcome step in some respect as it would put “lot of information into the public domain.” Jog thinks, the public information officers, knowing well what they are replying, would provide “qualitative replies” as these would be uploaded, adding, “This would also avoid repetitive RTIs.” Further, as the order wants that the first appellate authority’s orders are also uploaded, “their replies will also be accountable.”
Yet, Jog says, “There are some RTI activists who believe that the identity of applicant not to be disclosed. One should understand that when the application and the reply is uploaded with the name of the applicant, that is dangerous. People will not file applications fearing that their names would be put online. We are thinking of requesting the Government of India to think of blacking out part of the name and the address, so that this fear not to file application is not there. But one should also consider another part of the issue – that RTI activists even today proactively approach media with their names, and tell the world what reply they are getting.”
Jog further says, “The RTI has been registering names and addresses and information sought for last the last nine years. These registers are disclosed pro-actively. The threats and murders are not because the system discloses the name of the applicants, this will come even otherwise. And, there have been cases when the data, and replies coming in the public domain, are not sought to be disclosed by even RTI activists. With the decision to put the data of public domain on the web, this would end.”
Meanwhile, there is a section of RTI activists with an anti-Narendra Modi slant, who have decided to hold demonstrations and dharna against the Government of India order. “Such elements should understand that in order to make the government transparent, allowing applications and replies to be put online is a good step”, Jog says. “These activists’ reactions seem to be extremely immature.” Of course, she adds, the provision of not allowing personal details to be put on the web would also mean that cases of misdeeds by IAS officials are not disclosed. Also, property documents of public figures may not be disclosed on the web.”

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