'Data protection proposal imperils freedom of speech'

Central Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu speaks at a DH Spotlight event on ‘Citizens’ Right to Information: Issues and Perspectives’ in Bengaluru on Saturday. Former CIC Shailesh Gandhi and RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak are seen. DH PHOTO/S K DINESH

Central Information Commissioner (CIC) M Sridhar Acharyulu on Saturday came down heavily on “useless and unconstitutional” recommendations made by the Justice B N Srikrishna panel on personal data protection, which he said posed a threat to the freedom of speech. 

Acharyulu was speaking at the DH Spotlight discussion on ‘Citizens’ Right to Information: Issues and Perspectives’. 

He said he was really worried about the provisions in the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018, drafted by the Justice Srikrishna panel. “The consequence of this bill will mean that information commissioners have to wait for the orders of an adjudicating officer, which is nothing but pre-censorship and is not permissible under the Constitution,” he said.

“I’m surprised a former Supreme Court judge has come up with such a bill that is totally violative of Article 19.” 

The bill came amid increasing misuse of Section 8(j) of the RTI Act, which exempts disclosure of personal details. “There’s no end to imagination. Everything is being considered personal information - weather reports, scholarship list and so on - and this is hurting RTI in a big way.” 

He warned that the Right to be Forgotten clause in the bill could kill the freedom of speech and the press. “It can be used by corrupt politicians to their advantage.” 

RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak estimated that about 15,000 RTI applications are filed every day in India. “But not even 1% of citizens are using RTI,” he rued. “RTI is the best way to attack fake and false news.” 

Nayak shared at least seven case studies of how his requests for information
were either denied or stonewalled.

“Soon after demonetisation, I filed an RTI seeking a copy of the RBI’s board of governors minutes, since any decision on withdrawing currency has to be taken there. The reply was that the information I sought was against the interests of the economy.” 

Former CIC Shailesh Gandhi said the Supreme Court judgement in the Girish Ramachandra Deshpande case (2012) had become a bad precedent for denial of information under the garb of them being personal.

“My RTI applications to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) seeking annual performance appraisal reports of IAS officers, MLA funds, PM fund beneficiaries, Amit Shah’s security were denied. The list is endless,” he said. 

Citizens are unhappy with governance despite India being the world’s largest democracy, Gandhi said.

“The right to vote alone doesn’t make India a democracy. So long as there’s no sovereignty of the individual, we will remain a defective elective democracy.” 

The DH Spotlight is part of this newspaper’s continuous endeavour to engage with stakeholders on current issues. “We’re restarting an old Deccan Herald tradition. We chose to start with the RTI because it is fundamental to democracy. The RTI has been under attack ever since it became a law and the attacks have become cleverer,” The Printers (Mysore) Limited Joint Managing Director KN Tilak Kumar said in his opening remarks. 

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