New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Friday called for limiting of citizen’s right to information if it infringes upon individual privacy, an issue that cropped up after Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi sought details of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travel bills, which include those for health reasons.
“Citizens’ rights to know should definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy,” Manmohan Singh said, addressing the annual convention of information commissioners here.
Highlighting concerns over possible infringement of personal privacy when the government provides information under the RTI (Right To Information) Act, 2005, he also called for a fine balance between right to information and right to privacy, describing the dichotomy “a complicated question”.
Noting that there were concerns about “frivolous and vexatious use” of the law in demanding information, the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose, he also said public authorities should not view the law as “an irritant” but as one that does collective good.
“Concerns have also been raised regarding possible infringement of personal privacy while providing information under the RTI Act.”
“There is a fine balance required to be maintained between the RTI and the right to privacy, which stems out of the fundamental rights to life and liberty,” Manmohan Singh said.
“But where to draw the line is a complicated question,” he said, but did not mention Modi’s demand that Gandhi’s travel bills be made public while citing media reports of an RTI response from the government in this regard.
Referring to a Supreme Court order on appointment of retired apex court judges and high court chief justices as heads of Central Information Commission (CIC) and state information commissions (SICs), the prime minister said he was aware there had been “some confusion” about its implications on composition of the panels at the central and state levels.
“As you might be aware, the government has decided to go in review before the Supreme Court in this matter,” he said, a day after the central government moved a petition seeking review of the Sep 13 apex court order.
Manmohan Singh also noted that issues relating to how much information relating to entities set up under public-private partnerships (PPP) be disclosed under RTI too needed to be addressed.
He said blanket extension of the RTI Act to such PPP bodies may discourage private enterprises to enter into partnerships with the public sector. A blanket exclusion, on the other hand, may harm the cause of accountability of public officials, he added.
“This important legislation should not be only about criticising, ridiculing, and running down public authorities. RTI should be more about promoting transparency and accountability, spreading information and awareness and empowering the citizen.”
Citizens, Manmohan Singh said, feel empowered because of the RTI as 95.5 percent applications relating to central government authorities are cleared at the first stage.
“The potential for good, constructive use of the RTI is perhaps far greater than what its current status would indicate,” he said, adding that there was need to “change perceptions” on RTI among public authorities.