RTI and its impact on Official Secrets Act
Right to information act 2005
“An Act to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
Highlights of RTI Act, 2005
- RTI stands for Right To Information and has been given the status of a fundamental right under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. Article 19 (1) under which every citizen has freedom of speech and expression and have the right to know how the government works, what role does it play, what are its functions and so on.
- The Act confers right to the citizens to know as to how the tax payer’s money is being spent by the Government.
- The RTI Act extends to the whole of India (except the State of Jammu and Kashmir), all bodies, which come under Government notification including NGOs, which are owned, controlled or are substantially financed by the Government.
- RTI Act confers right to access to information held by a Public Authority. In case you have been denied the access to information you may file Appeal / Complaint before the Central Information Commission (CIC) using the CIC Online.
The RTI Act, 2005 empowers every citizen to:
- Ask any questions from the Government or seek any information.
- Take copies of any governmental documents.
- Inspect any governmental documents.
- Inspect any Governmental works.
- Take samples of materials of any Governmental work
Process of Filing RTI
- Under the Act, all authorities covered must appoint their Public Information Officer (PIO).
- Any person may submit a request to the PIO for information in writing.
- It is the PIO’s obligation to provide information to citizens of India who request information under the Act.
- If the request pertains to another public authority (in whole or part), it is the PIO’s responsibility to transfer/forward the concerned portions of the request to a PIO of the other within 5 working days.
- In addition, every public authority is required to designate Assistant Public Information Officers (APIOs) to receive RTI requests and appeals for forwarding to the PIOs of their public authority.
- The applicant is not required to disclose any information or reasons other than his name and contact particulars to seek the information.
RTI and its impact on Official Secrets Act
Section 8 of RTI Act exempts certain items from being disclosed through an RTI. Section 22 only covers overriding of provisions of Official Secrets Act, 1923 that are inconsistent with those of RTI Act, the documents classified under OSA are not covered. Therefore, Official Secrets Act may cause hinderance. It is a loophole that has to be eliminated.
Based on the level of sensitivity of the information and the implications of its disclosure for national security, the official documents in India are classified as:
- Top Secret
It is for information whose unauthorised disclosure may cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security or national interest. This category is reserved for the nation’s closest secrets.
It is for information whose disclosure may result in “serious damage” to national security or national interest, or serious embarrassment to the government. It is generally used for “highly important matters”. Normally it is the highest classification used.
It is for information that might cause “damage” to national security, be prejudicial to national interest, might embarrass the government.
It is applied to information meant only for official use and is not to be published or communicated to any person except for official purposes. Documents which are not classified are regarded as “Unclassified”.
Criteria for classification: Despite of requests from activists, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has not disclosed the criteria for classification. The Official Secrets Act does not define the term ‘secret’ or the phrase ‘official secrets’. Further, the public servants enjoy substantial discretion to classify anything as ‘secret’. The classification is decided in accordance with Departmental Security Instructions issued by the MHA. The Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedure (Thirteenth edition), published in September 2010, has details of how classified documents will be treated, but there is no mention of the criteria for classification of documents.