“Today, we are living in a world where we are told what we can and cannot eat, what we can and cannot see, and what we can and cannot speak about.”
Justice AP Shah, Former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court and the former Chairman of Law Commission of India minced no words when he poured his heart out while delivering a lecture on “Transparency and Empowerment in Decision-Making are Pillars of a Healthy Democracy” at the inaugural Lecture organised by MoneyLife Foundation’s RTI Centre at Pune, last week. His talk touched variety of issues that covered right to freedom of speech and expression, role of media in modern times, whistleblower, RTI, Lokpal and privacy among other issues.
Talking about the right to freedom of expression and speech, Justice Shah said that we are today living in the age of propaganda, and proactive false information, and half truths. He added that the media coverage, or rather black out, of certain press conferences, and distorting headlines with a pro-government bias, is an attempt to spread disinformation. “The right to freedom of speech and expression are under attack”, he said and added that there would be no change unless ordinary citizens rise up and demand accountability from the government. Dissent, he remarked, is being curbed and journalists are being shot for their views, movie directors and producers are forced to edit and issue disclaimers despite clearance from CBFC. “Think of the controversies surrounding Padmavat, Lipstick under the Burkha, S Durga, or Jolly LLB, and you will realise that we are living in an increasingly intolerant society.”
Emphasizing on the role of media as an institution with much power and influence on public opinion, he lamented that a section of the media, rather vast section of media, particularly electronic media, through its biased and one-sided reporting, has unfortunately aided in the restriction on free speech. He expressed concern over attack on institutions and concerted action to destroy any independent thought. Justice AP further said “Today, if anyone holds a view that is different from the government’s ‘acceptable’ view, they are immediately dubbed as ‘anti-national’, with a view to intimidate and browbeat voices of dissent and criticism, especially through severe online harassment, trolling and abuse.”
Expressing his view on bringing the political parties under the ambit of RTI, the former Chief Justice said that the move would open politics to public scrutiny, regulate political funding and regulate electoral ecosystem. He pointed out the recent Supreme Court judgment of Lok Prahari v Union of India where the court ruled that election candidates must disclose not only their sources of income, but also the source of income of their respective associates (spouses/dependants).
On the conflicts between right to information and right to privacy, he said, “Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act provides an exception to the disclosure of information ‘which relates to personal information… which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy’. The problem arises because the RTI Act does not define the term ‘privacy’ or ‘public activity’ or ‘unwarranted invasion’, thus giving wide leeway to public information officers (PIOs) to reject genuine RTI requests on such grounds.”
He further adds that Right to Privacy and the Aadhaar Act compounds further problems for citizens. While the RTI Act regulates the citizen’s right to information regarding third party public authorities, the Aadhaar Act is concerned with the right to access information about one self.
Justice AP Shah also expressed concern over non-operationalisation of the Whistle Blower’s Protection Act, the Lokpal Act and implementation of proactive disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act. Highlighting that the hallmark of a democracy is that citizens have the right to question the government on its actions, he emphasized that all information except that which is exempted under Section 8 should be made available to public. This, according to him is possible only if proper information about government decisions and policies is provided to people. “The trend of making claims and taking policy decisions without adequate information is very dangerous. We have seen that several recent claims of the government have not withstood fact checking and interrogation through RTI and media.”, he added.
Justice Shah, who had been on the front protecting the right to freedom of speech and expression during his judgeship, has proved with this lecture that he stands strong for the freedom of citizens of this country outside the courtroom too.