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What should a law contain?

Minimum Standards For Maximum Disclosure

Access to information legislation must:

  • Begin with a clear statement that establishes the rule of maximum disclosure and a strong presumption in favour of access;

  • Contain definitions of information and bodies covered that are wide and inclusive, and include private corporations and non-government organisations where their activities affect people's rights;

  • Strictly limit and narrowly define any restrictions on access to information. Any body denying access must provide reasons and prove that disclosure would cause serious harm and that denial is in the overall public interest;

  • Override inconsistent and restrictive provisions in existing laws;

  • Require governments to create and maintain records management systems that meet public needs;

  • Include clear and uncomplicated procedures that ensure quick responses at affordable fees;

  • Create powerful independent bodies that are mandated to review any refusal to disclose information, compel release, and monitor and promote implementation;

  • Impose penalties and sanctions on those who wilfully obstruct access to information;

  • Provide protection for individuals who, in good faith, provide information that reveals wrongdoing or mismanagement;

  • Contain an obligation to routinely and proactively disseminate updates about structure, norms and functioning of public bodies including the documents they hold, their finances, activities and any opportunities for consultation;

  • Contain provisions obligating the government to actively undertake training for government officials and public education about the right to access information.

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Maximum Disclosure and Minimum Exceptions

The right of access to official/government-held information should be a wide right. The exceptions to the rule of giving information must be limited and specific. The law must not contain a long list of exceptions couched in terms general enough to ensure that all kinds of information can be refused taking the help of the law.

A Right to Information does not need to disclose any specific need. If a person must show public purpose every time he seeks information, it would give unlimited discretion to public bodies to refuse information.

Accountability

A Right to Information law must lay down clearly the principle of accountability. That is, it must state specifically as to who is responsible for providing the information. Penalties should be provided for officials who delay without just cause the giving of information or refuse on unwarranted grounds.

Independent Forum for Appeals

The law should contain a simple and independent procedure for appeals from refusals to give information. The appellate forum should be an independent person or institution such as an Ombudsman.
Reasonable Fee Structure.

The law, if it provides for a levy of a fee for getting information must ensure that the fee is reasonable and does not act as a deterrent for asking information and does not end up debarring information from the disadvantaged groups who cannot afford the fees. The law must provide for waiver of fees in certain circumstances.

Upgradation of Systems

The law should contain provisions for setting up specific systems for storing and disseminating information and upgrading the existing systems for enabling easy access. There must be specific provisions for priority-wise computerization etc. of government offices.

Allocation of Funds

The law must contain a specific allocation of funds for the purpose of operationalising the Right to Information. Without this, the law will be a dead letter and will have no effect.

Methods of Communication

The law must contain a specific directive for simplification of official language. Information giving should be in a form that can be easily understood by people. There must be a focus on traditional means of giving information. As of now, most information is contained in official gazettes and publications that are usually unavailable and are of no use to the lay citizens, given the low literacy levels. The law should ensure proper use of the electronic and print media as well as use of conventional methods of communication as per the target group.

Duty to Inform

The law must cast a positive duty on public bodies to inform the public in case of certain projects and activities that relate to the public. This envisages giving information without being asked for it. It must be made mandatory to give out certain kinds of information on a mandatory basis. This kind of information would include rules, information on proposed projects and schemes, and other relevant information which needs to be given out and updated routinely.

Time Limit

The law must contain a provision for timely imparting of information. The concerned public officials should face a penalty in case the information is not given in time. The time limit should be reasonable and should not jeopardize a person's rights. Time limits should be set in order of urgency and accessibility. Information regarding a person's life and liberty should be made available forthwith or within the shortest possible time, say within 48 hours. Information which is available at hand should also be given in a shorter time. The Shourie Bill provided for a period of 30 days with a further period of 30 days for giving information. This period seems unreasonable for all kinds of information.

Protection of Privacy

The law must take into account the protection of an individual's privacy. Personal information held by the government must be exempt from disclosure. However, if the public interest in disclosure in the public interest greatly outweighs the preservation of individual privacy, then disclosure should be allowed.

Application to Private Bodies

Although, strictly speaking, the Right to Information is for government-held information, the law must make it binding on private bodies to disclose certain kinds of information that could affect the public health, etc. This is especially in view of increasing globalization and incidents like the Bhopal Gas Leak that claimed many lives and put to irreparable harm even future generations.

Protection of Whistleblowers

The law should give protection to public officials who give certain exempted information where it is necessary to do so in overwhelming public interest or to disclose some serious corrupt practice, etc.

Publicity and Training

The law must contain a mandatory procedure for publicising its contents. Often, laws are passed without their knowledge percolating down without sufficient speed or impact and therefore fail to bring about the desired change in the systems. The Right to Information law must also contain a strong aspect of training and orientation of public servants at all levels, in order to bring about an effective change in the culture.

 

 
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