New Delhi, Oct. 12: The Centre is contemplating a law to safeguard the right to privacy as a buffer against possible misuse of the RTI Act, the Prime Minister said today.
Citizens’ right to know should “definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy, but where to draw the line is a complicated question,” Manmohan Singh said.
He said the government had set up an expert group under Justice A.P. Shah to provide suggestions. Sources said the personnel and training department was likely to pilot the proposed right-to-privacy bill if it indeed took shape.
Singh’s remarks came at the annual convention of information commissioners, where he spoke of how the RTI Act was often being misused to get information unrelated to the public interest.
“Concerns have been raised regarding possible infringement of personal privacy while providing information under the Right to Information Act,” he said.
“There is a fine balance required to be maintained between the right to information and the right to privacy, which stems out of the fundamental right to life and liberty.”
He requested the state information commissioners and experts to discuss what should be considered matters of privacy and what qualified as matters of public interest.
The RTI Act has an exemption clause that says private information cannot be shared with the applicant unless the public information officer or appellate authority decides that disclosure can serve the larger public interest.
However, there is a lack of clarity on which matter is private and which of public interest, Odisha information commissioner Jagadananda told The Telegraph.
“So, public information officers and appellate authorities are using their discretion to allow or deny information,” he said.
Former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah supported Singh on the need for a separate privacy law, saying: “The right to privacy is another basic need in a democracy. I completely agree with the Prime Minister on this.”
The Supreme Court too has been seized of threats to privacy since Ratan Tata petitioned it for action against those behind the leak of his phone conversation with corporate lobbyist Niira Radia. Tata argued that the leak infringed on his fundamental right to life, which includes the right to privacy under the Constitution.
Singh also aired concerns about “frivolous and vexatious” use of the RTI Act.
“Information covering a long time span or a large number of cases is sought in an omnibus manner with the objective of discovering an inconsistency or mistake which can be criticised.” he said.
“Such queries, besides serving little productive social purpose, are also a drain on the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious man hours that could be put to better use.”
The Prime Minister favoured extending the RTI Act’s ambit to cover public-private partnership entities, which are now exempt.
“A blanket extension of the act to such bodies may discourage private enterprises from entering into partnerships with a public sector entity. A blanket exclusion, on the other hand, may harm the cause of accountability of public officials,” Singh cautioned.
He said the Centre would seek a review of a recent Supreme Court order on the composition of the central and state information commissions.
The apex court has ruled that the panels should have at least one judicial member while hearing appeals or complaints from information seekers. The panels are now filled with retired bureaucrats and civil society members.
“I know that there has been some confusion about the implications of the recent Supreme Court order regarding the composition of the central and state information commissions. As you might be aware, the government has decided to go in for a review before the Supreme Court,” Singh said.