As an information commissioner who dealt with over 20,000 cases under the Right to Information Act, I had the opportunity of interacting with a large number of information seekers and public information officers. The latter generally refer to people who regularly file right to information applications as blackmailers and harassers, and accuse them of misusing the law. I would broadly divide those who file a large number of applications in the following categories:

  1. Those who file applications with the hope of exposing corruption or arbitrariness and to improve and correct governance.
  2. Those who do so to correct a wrong that they perceive has been done to them. Their basic intention is to get justice for themselves.
  3. Those who use the Act to blackmail people. This category largely targets illegal buildings, mining, or some other activity that runs foul of the law.
  4. Those who use it to harass public officials to get undue favours.

All these categories together comprise around 15% of the total appeals and complaints before the Central Information Commission. Nobody will deny that the first category certainly deserves to be encouraged. In the second category, there are some who have been able to get corrective action and some whose grievances may defy resolution. When faced with such applicants, public information officers should speak to the concerned officer to evaluate whether the grievance can be redressed.

Most of us have a strong aversion to the third and fourth categories of applicants, who use the Act to make money or to put pressure on certain people to get an undue favour. These two categories certainly do not exceed 10% of the total appeals and complaints with the commission. They represent persistent right-to-information users who are generally knowledgeable about appeals and procedures. Thus, they are not the true representative sample of all applicants.

A detailed study by the RTI Assessment and Analysis Group, or RaaG, and a small study done by me show that such applications are actually less than 5% of the total number. Most applicants are unaware of appeal procedures, or do not have the time and inclination to pursue appeals. Hence, the percentage of those who file second appeals is far more for the last two categories.

Misuse of law

I would argue that in the implementation of most laws, some people would misuse their provisions. The police often misuse their powers to subvert the law, just as criminals misuse our judicial system to prolong trials. The misuse of any law is largely dependent on the kind of people in a society and whether the justice system has the capability of punishing wrongdoers. There are people who go to places of worship with the sole objective of committing theft or other crimes. But society does not define this as the main characteristic of temples. Is it reasonable to then expect only angels to use the right to information law?

To be able to blackmail an officer or someone who has indulged in an illegal activity, there are some illegal actions. Noticing and curbing these is the job of various government officers and the citizen is actually acting as a vigilance monitor. I have often questioned government officers on how blackmailers operate. They state that the right-to-information blackmailer threatens an illegal action with exposure and extorts money. I have sometimes wondered why society has such touching empathy for victims who have committed illegal acts. The fourth category must be discouraged and information commissioners do this fairly easily.

Freedom of speech and media – which like the right to information are covered under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution – have been expanding with time. The reasonable restraints on it are defined by Article 19 (2) and covered by exemptions in the Right to Information Act. There is a national debate when a movie is subjected to cuts or people or the media are muzzled by the government, political class or ruffians. On the other hand, there is a constant refrain from those who have power – including information commissioners – to highlight the misuse of the Right to Information Act. This is an attempt to muzzle the citizen’s fundamental right. The Supreme Court, in one judgement, castigated right-to-information users with these words:

“The Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquility and harmony among its citizens. Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty.”

Weakening tactic

There is no evidence of right to information being harmful to national interest. There is an increasing danger of the Act being amended by gross misinterpretation. While the Indian law is among the best five in terms of its provisions, we rank number 66 on performance.

Many eminent persons in the country berate the right to information, saying there should be limits to it. It is accepted widely that freedom of speech is often used to abuse or defame people, or used by small newspapers to resort to blackmail. The concept of paid news is well recorded. Despite all this, there is never a demand to constrict freedom of speech. But there is a growing tendency among those with power to misinterpret and castigate the Right to Information Act, almost to the point where it does not really represent what the law says. There is widespread acceptance of the idea that statements, books and works of literature and art are covered by Article 19 (1) (a), and any attempt to curb it meets with stiff resistance. However, there is no murmur when right to information users are labelled deprecatingly, although this right, too, is covered by the same article of the Constitution. Everyone with power appears to say: “I would risk my life for your right to express your views, but damn you if you use RTI in a manner I do not approve.”

The constant attacks on the right to information are leading to an impression that it needs to be curbed and its activists deprecated, attacked or murdered. We should not allow this fundamental right to be weakened.

Shailesh Gandhi is a former central information commissioner.