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In Garb of Data Protection Bill, Centre Attacking RTI, Allege Information Commissioners

Kashif Kakvi |
During an online press conference, they claimed that the proposed data protection Bill is used to take the essence of RTI law. Civil societies and journalists should speak up.
Unravelling concerns over the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Bill, 2022

Bhopal: The draft of the newly proposed Digital Personal Data Protection Bill 2022, released by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on November 18 for public feedback, has infuriated the Information commissioners and RTI activists.

Five information commissioners, including two sitting commissioners on Tuesday (December 13), held an online press conference opening a front against the four sections of the newly proposed draft. They said that the Right to Information Act 2005-06, passed to usher in transparency in the governance and give citizens access to the government files, is under serious threat.

The four sections of the new law -- Section 2, redefines the individuals. Section 22, which overrides the RTI law, Section 29 (2), Section 30 (2), which proposed amendment in RTI's section 8(1)(J), attacks the very essence of the RTI and it will cripple one of the best transparency laws in the world.

"Anyone trying to dilute or weaken the RTI act is against democracy and transparency," said Ratnakar Gaikwad, former chief secretary and former Chief Information Commissioner, Maharashtra.

"Data Protection bill is already a blatant attack on the privacy, and under the garb of data protection, the government is trying to do away with RTI."

The Union government in August this year rolled back the proposed Data protection bill. But it released the new draft and sought public feedback by December 18.

Addressing the ZOOM press conference, Shailesh Gandhi, former Center Information Commissioner, pointed out that the proposed law defines a 'person', contradictory to the RTI laws. Besides, it diluted the difference between public information and personal information.

Section 2 (12) defines a person as "(a) an individual; (b) a Hindu Undivided Family; (c) a company; (d) a firm; (e) an association of persons or a body of individuals, whether incorporated or not; (f) the State; and (g) every artificial juristic person, not falling within any of the preceding sub-clauses so the privacy law would cover all kinds of people and organisation.

"Seeking any information related to the 'person' can be denied citing privacy, and violators of the privacy will be fined heavily," said Gandhi.

Clause 30(2) of the draft proposes an amendment to Section 8(j) of the RTI Act, which will have the effect of totally exempting personal information from disclosure.

Section 8(j) of the RTI Act states that information related to personal information will be exempted from RTI Act if its disclosure has no relationship to any public activity or interest or if it would cause an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual. However, Public Information Officer can direct the disclosure of such personal information if the authority is satisfied that "if the information is related to the larger public interest, it is on the wisdom of the information commissioner to ask the official to disclose such information," said Gandhi.

Gandhi pointed out Section 8 (1)( j ), which is criminally misused by the bureaucrats to deny the information. The new law proposes an amendment to increase its purview, giving officials the right to deny access to most information. "Any information or document which can be presented in the Parliament or in the assembly is a public document and citizens have rights to access it which will be denied with the proposed amendment."

In addition, the RTI Act, which has an overriding influence over all other acts, will also be changed. If passed, the new law will have the overriding effect over the RTI, which will weaken the Act.

"Data protection is important but not at the cost of the RTI Act," said Rahul Singh, Madhya Pradesh information commissioner and former journalist who was part of the press conference. "Instead of strengthening the 16-year-old law to usher in transparency, an attempt is being made to weaken it. What is the need to amend RTI to protect the data?"

He demanded that the government show and prove its reasons for suggesting such an amendment to the RTI Act. "What constituted an illegal denial of information earlier will be converted to legal denial," he said.

Referring to the recent cases, Singh said, "There are countless cases in which information is denied on the ground of 8 (1)(J). In a case related to the Public Works Department in which information was sought about bills raised by the contractors where the amount was paid without the work being completed is denying invoking section 8(1)(J). In another case, the Education Department refused to share the attendance record of a teacher drawing a salary without coming to school. Likewise, the Mining Department refused to disclose information on royalty paid by a mining firm since it had claimed that this was 'personal information'.

Also, he said, in one case, an officer had two caste certificates, but when information was asked for under the RTI Act, it was denied on the ground that it was 'personal information'.

Section 8(1)(j) says no information would be provided in some cases barring when it is in the larger public interest; the new Bill changes this provision. Also, he lamented that it does away with the provision, which stated that information which cannot be denied to Parliament or a State Assembly would not be denied to an appellant.

He insisted that the RTI Act not be changed since it is the first law that declares regular citizens to be the "maliks," or the true rulers, rather than the government.

Another former central information commissioner and IPS officer, Yashovardhan Azad, spoke about how the Data Protection Bill will trample upon the provisions of the RTI Act, which he said was called "the sunshine legislation when it was enacted".

Azad said the RTI Act provides a preamble for transparency and accountability. "Article 13 of the Constitution says that no executive action or law can be brought that goes against the basic rights of the people. And yet today, if we are trying to expand the horizons of Section 8 (1)(j) and saying that in view of breach of privacy no information will be given, then this would directly impact the people's right to information."

He further said, "This is not the first time the Union government and bureaucrats tried to twist the RTI law, but they backed out when civil societies relented. If this law is passed in its current form, we can only access the budget. It's time for civil societies to speak up against it."

Former state information commissioner and journalist Aatmdeep said there are four provisions in the Data Protection Bill which are "not only unnecessary but will hit RTI Act. He said these provisions "remove the difference between personal data and personal information".

"Since the new Bill does not define personal data, it might result in a situation where all information is concealed. Therefore, we urge that these four clauses be repealed and that no changes be made to the RTI Act, he added.

Pointing to the media, he said, "RTI is the strongest tool for journalists to acquire information. Besides, Section 12 to 14 of the data protection law says if the media publishes a report with sources, it will be considered a violation of the protection bill and will be sued. Journalists should speak up before they are forced to be silent."

Aatmdeep stated that third-party information would also be impacted, and businesses would now be exempt from sharing information. He also stated that persons would be penalised for obtaining, distributing, or publishing such personal information. "Now, all sorts of information will be concealed."

Gaikwad said there is no judicial or political will to uphold the people's right to information. "This is all supporting corruption," he said while referring to the Data Protection Bill's impact on the RTI Act.

A Rewa-bases social activist Shivanand Dwivedi, who was anchoring the press conference, also submitted a memorandum to the Rewa collector demanding changes in the proposed draft.

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