Updated: April 12, 2019 12:12:35 am
The Supreme Court’s decision to consider the documents published in the media on the Rafale deal purely on their “relevancy” is not merely a welcome dismissal of the Centre’s objections over judicial scrutiny of these papers. It is, more significantly, a reaffirmation of the freedom of expression and the people’s right to know. In March, Attorney General K K Venugopal had sought the dismissal of a petition calling for a review of the Court’s verdict last year in the Rafale case on the grounds that the petitioners relied on documents, published by The Hindu newspaper in February, that were “stolen” from the Defence Ministry — he later retracted those claims and alleged that the newspaper had published “unauthorised photocopies”. The publication of these documents, the AG had held, amounted to a violation of the Official Secrets Act (OSA). But on Wednesday, a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi ruled that there was nothing in the OSA, or any other law, “that restrains publication of documents, marked as secret, or placing such documents before a Court”.
The AG had contended that the government had “privilege” over the documents pertaining to the Rafale deal with France. He had argued that the petitioners could not produce these documents in the court because their disclosure is exempted under Section 8 (1) of the RTI Act. But on Wednesday, the apex court ruled that these exemptions do not come in the way of disclosure of official documents if there’s “an overriding public interest”. The verdict re-animates the principle of “open disclosure” envisaged in the RTI Act and underscores its preeminence vis-a-vis the archaic OSA. In a separate judgment, that concurred with the main verdict, Justice K M Joseph noted that the RTI Act “confers upon citizens… the right to demand information even in respect of such matters as security of the country and relations with a foreign state” provided the applicant “can establish that withholding such information produces greater harm than disclosing it”. He cleared the air on the restrictions on the Right to Information in matters of national security: “Section 24 (of the RTI Act)…declares that even though information available with intelligence and security organisations is generally outside the purview of the open disclosure regime contemplated under the Act, if the information pertains to allegations of corruption or human rights violations, such information is very much available to be sought for under the Act.”
The Supreme Court has consistently expanded and enlivened the citizen’s right to scrutinise government decision-making and sought to ensure that those who expose corruption and wrongdoing are not vulnerable to intimidation. Wednesday’s verdict should be seen in this light. Its importance, therefore, extends far beyond the Rafale case. The judgment as, Justice Joseph pointed out, is about “the attainment of highest levels of probity in public life”.
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