The right to know

Published May 7, 2022
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

THE right to know took its own time to arrive. It is not explicitly guaranteed in the Indian constitution. But the Indian supreme court spelt it out in connection with the freedom of speech. You cannot exercise the latter right with an empty mind. It has to be enriched with knowledge if it is to express its mind with sense.

Last month, it was reported that jail authorities had refused a request by human rights activist Gautam Navlakha to read a book by P.G. Wodehouse as a “security risk”. Had humour been banished from prison, wondered the Bombay High Court that was hearing Mr Navlakha’s plea for house arrest, instead of confinement in jail.

India has a long history of prison literature. Gandhi wrote My Experiments with Truth in Pune’s Yerawada jail, while The Discovery of India was the result of the time that Nehru did in Ahmednagar prison. Political leader Jayaprakash Narayan penned Prison Diary during the Emergency.

The Editors Guild of India (EGI) is worried about the new Central Media Accreditation Guidelines that have been issued by the Press Information Bureau which is responsible for granting accreditation to media representatives for easing access to official information.

Editors in India are worried.

According to a statement it issued, the guidelines have new provisions allowing accreditation to be revoked. Many of these provisions are reportedly arbitrary.

The EGI statement elaborates thus: “For instance, accreditation can be revoked if a journalist is ‘charged with a serious cognisable offence’, or if a journalist, ‘acts in a manner which is prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence’.”

It was bizarre that merely being charged had been mentioned as a ground for cancellation. Other grounds for cancellation were manifestly vague and subjective, especially since no procedures had been set out and there was no mention of the adjudicating authority that would decide on suspension.

“Worse still, concerned journalists have not been allowed to be heard. Most surprisingly, ‘defamation’ has been included as a gro­und for cancellation. A new clause requiring pol­ice verification has been added without def­ining the contours of such verification. Sin­ce no standards have been prescribed, it can grant unfettered powers to police for den­y­ing accreditation to journalists who may be seen as critical of the government,” the EGI said.

It was clear, said the EGI “that these vague, arbitrary, and draconian clauses have been included with intent to restrict any critical and investigative reporting of government affairs. There are other provisions as well that are restrictive. In the case of freelance journalists, the requirements pertaining to the number of bylines have been made unreasonably high”.

It also pointed out that no consultations had been held with relevant bodies such as media organisations prior to the introduction of the guidelines.

As Lord Simon said: “The public interest in freedom of discussion (of which the freedom of the press is one aspect) stems from the requirement that members of a democratic society should be sufficiently informed that they may influence intelligently the decisions which may affect themselves.”

In 1975, India’s apex court ruled: “In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. The right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary, when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can, at any rate, have no repercussion on public security.

“To cover with a veil, the common routine business is not in the interest of the public. Such secrecy can seldom be legitimately desired. It is generally desired for the purpose of parties and politics or personal self-interest of bureaucratic routine. The responsibility of officials to explain and to justify their acts is the chief safeguard against oppression and corruption.”

In 1965, the US supreme court had struck down a federal law which required a person wishing to receive “communist political propaganda” from abroad to sign a reply card for the post office.

“It is true that the First Amendment to the US constitution contains no specific guarantee of access to publications. However, the protection of the Bill of Rights goes beyond the specific guarantees to protect from congressional abridgment those equally fundamental personal rights necessary to make the express guarantees fully meaningful.” That concludes the issue.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2022

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