The Bombay High Court on Thursday directed the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry (MIB) to clarify if personal details of applicants seeking replies under the Right to Information (RTI) Act were put up on its website and then removed only after it was brought to the notice of the ministry, despite 2016 directives of the Union Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT), which prevented such disclosures.
A division bench of Justice Nitin M Jamdar and Justice Milind N Jadhav was hearing a writ petition filed by activist Saket Gokhale in July, seeking directions that his personal information be removed from the MIB website and he be paid a compensation of Rs 50 lakh for mental trauma, agony and threat to life suffered due to disclosure of the details.
In his plea, Gokhale had said that last October, he had filed an RTI application before the Ministry of Youth and Sports Affairs (MYSA) seeking information on ‘Bharat ki Laxmi campaign’ and his plea was transferred to the MIB.
He added that the MIB uploaded his application on its website with his personal details, including contact number and address. The petitioner said that his personal information was not available anywhere until it was uploaded on the website and the same was violation of his fundamental right to privacy.
On Thursday, advocate Rui Rodrigues, appearing for MIB, opposed the plea and said that Gokhale’s contentions do not survive as the RTI cell, on August 1, this year, had removed all personal details of RTI applicants from the MIB website. It has received confirmation for the same from the National Informatics Centre (NIC) that oversees government websites, he added. “There was no malafide intention to cause damage to the petitioner or any other RTI applicant,” Rodrigues said.
He maintained that the 2016 directions of DoPT had not reached the MIB. However, as and when the MIB came to know about them, the same was complied with immediate effect and personal details were removed from the website, the MIB said.
Referring to the DoPT directions issued through office memorandums (OM) in March and December 2016, which stated that personal information of RTI applicants should not be disclosed on websites, Justice Jamdar observed that the petitioner’s data remained on the website from last November to August, this year.
The court also inquired if personal details of all RTI applicants were disclosed on the website. “This would mean 2016 onwards, information of all RTI applicants would be put up as the MIB did not know instruction given by other departments. It means they (MIB) have not followed those directions. It was a mistake perpetuated in almost all applications.”
“Was it that information of every applicant was put up on a website and you removed it only after you came to know?” the court asked MIB.
It added, “We want to know if details of all applicants were displayed on your website or if the petitioner was singled out.”
Noting the Centre’s submission that only Gokhale’s details were put up on the website, the HC said, “However, from respondent’s reply, we do not get (to know)… if in all RTI applications, information of applicants was put up on website and removed after said OM came to the knowledge of this department (MIB).”
Gokhale submitted that while the MIB said that it did not receive OM from DoPT, similar directives were issued in 2014, stopping the authorities from uploading information of RTI applicants on their websites. Moreover, he refuted MIB’s claims of his personal details being removed in August, saying that the same were there on the website on September 4.
Granting time to the MIB to file an additional affidavit responding to the queries put forth by it, the HC posted the next hearing after two weeks.
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