Department of Telecom asserts disclosure will cause breach of privilege of Parliament

Information sought by the public, media and even members of Parliament on the 2G scam from the Department of Telecom and various ministries under the Right to Information is being denied under Section 8 of the RTI Act and more recently, the rules of procedure governing the Joint Parliamentary Committee probing the 2G matter.

An investigation by The Hindu reveals that virtually all applications seeking information relating to the 2G scam were denied under the exemption provided by Section 8(1)(h) — ‘Information which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders’.

While denying information, the government is expected to respond with a well-reasoned reply including some details on the specific investigation as well as how the information sought will impede the process of investigation or prosecution of offenders. However, the DoT has not been providing any such explanation in its replies. Rather, DoT officials routinely take the liberty of replacing the words “would” with “may” and “investigation” with “examination” in order to turn down requests.

More recently, the DoT has started denying information on any 2G issue citing Section 8(1)(c) of the RTI — “information the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the state legislator.”

Further, the JPC has vide a letter no, 1/1/JPC(TLS)/2011 dated November 11, 2011, concluded — using a combination of Rule 275 (2) of the Rules of Procedure with Section 8 (1) (c) of the RTI Act — that disclosure of information relating to the 2G matter which “would be cause of breach of privilege” can be declined.

As per the RTI Act, all appeals against denial of information by Central Public Information Officers and the Appellate Authority have to be filed before the Central Information Commission (CIC).

The routine denial of information across government departments has led to a sharp increase in the number of appeals going to the CIC, leading to lengthy delays between the filing of an appeal and the actual relief, if any. “If the CPIO denies information, applicants can invoke Section 18 of the RTI Act read with Section 20 to bypass the Appellate Authority and approach the CIC directly. But even then, pendency at the CIC ensures a wait of up to 9 months,” agrees former CIC member, A.N. Tiwari.

Either way, the procedure allows the government to delay information by up to a year. This includes 30 days for the CPIO’s reply, 30 days to appeal before the Appellate Authority, another 30-90 days to file an appeal in the CIC and finally, procedural and administrative delays at the CIC due to pendency coupled with repeat hearings and adjournments. By this time, the information becomes outdated and of little use to the public and media.

On May 18, 2012, a question relating to the misuse of the section on exemptions, procedure for decisions relating to exemptions and the number of applications denied under the RTI Act 2005 for queries relating to the 2G scam came up for a reply in Parliament. Rather than replying, the government stated that “the information is being collected and will be laid on the table of the House.”

In a twist of fate, much of the information and papers on the 2G scam have come into the public domain without the use of the RTI Act. For example, Justice Shivraj Patil voluntarily released over 1,300 pages of evidence as a part of his January 2011 report on the 2G scam to the DoT. However, when the same information is sought under the RTI Act, it is denied using Section 8, on grounds that “the original files are with the CBI or JPC.”

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