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Jurisprudential Voyage of Freedom of Information

“Let the noble thoughts come to us from every side.”– Rig veda, 1-89-1
“Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya” - Lead us from darkness to light. Ignorance is darkness and must be dispelled; information is light and must be processed throu consciousness.”

Explosion of information and exclusion from information are two competing trends in our cosmos of human rights and democracy versus Government by secrecy. It is essential that all men and women, in all social and cultural environments, should be given the opportunity of joining in the process of collective thinking, thus initiated, for new ideas must be developed and more positive measures must be taken to shake off the prevailing inertia. With the coming of a new world communication order, each people must be able to learn from the others, while at the same time conveying to them its own understanding of its own condition and its own view of the World Affairs. Mankind will then have made a decisive step forward on the path of freedom, democracy and fellowship. Freedom of association and other fundamental freedoms become viable only if there is no suppression of freedom of expression. The UNSECO Declaration of 1978 speaks of “exercise of freedom of opinion, expression and information, recognized as an integral part of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In the current geopolitically sensitive era, Information is considered as the real weapon of power. Information and communication are powerful tools and have a potential to shape and shake social and political developments depending on the classes concerning these resources. The information revolution ushered in by the communication and computer technology, is affecting the economic and social order. Alvin Toffler, in his book The Third Wave, considers this tornado of information through technology as holding the potential for great social change. Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. India was a colony for long. Before that it has a feudal culture and hierarchical social structure. The Maharajas and the Mughals, the Viceroys and the British Empire defended themselves behind ramparts of secrecy. The entire freedom struggle was a battle against colonialism and for the self-government. In this perspective, the rivalry between freedom of the information and the official secrecy, democratic culture and imperial heritage was formally resolved in favour of the latter. “Satyameva Jayate” is not merely a national motto but a guideline for the Press. The political essence of Press autonomy is freedom blended with the dedication to truth.

The United Nations, in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, included freedom of expression and free flow of information as a Human Right essential in the pursuit of peace and progress:
“Article 19 – Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reinforced these provisions:
“Article 19(2) – Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other of his choice.”

Many other instruments, resolutions and learned reports like the Mac Bridge Report have integrated the trinity of freedoms – of Information, communication and expression into the World Legal Order and Jurisprudence of Human Rights. Freedom of expression under Article 19(1) (a) of our Constitution has received a dynamic semantic and judicial connotation. It includes the freedom of the media as promotive of the health of our democracy and as conducive of popular feed-back shaping the State process. A free press has always been regarded as a powerful weapon during the freedom struggle and after independence, as an instrument for dissemination of information. Young India was Gandhiji’s weapon and National Herald was founded by Nehru. Giants of journalistic universe battled with pen in hand for India’s swaraj.

True to this tradition, the first PM of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru stressed
“I would rather have completely free Press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated Press. Journalism and journalists play a very important part in the public life in the modern world. In India there is a possibility of suppression of facts either by the government or by the private proprietors or at the dictates of advertisers… I am against suppression of news as it would deprive the public of the only means of forming a correct judgment on the world events…the press helps in the information of public opinion. A free Press, however, must suffer wholesome restrictions such as are stated in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. You cannot jeopardize Indian sovereignty and integrity, the security of the State, friendly relations with the foreign States, public order, decency or morality or breach of laws in relation to contempt of Court, defamation or incitement to offence. Thus a happy balance is struck between of speech and deleterious license. of course, the restrictions in Article 19(2), if read with narrow pedantry, prudery or pettifoggery may do violence to our larger freedoms and spacious free speech.”

Releasing that governmental control of the Press may harm its freedom, Mahatma Gandhi brought out the need for reconciliation of freedom and restraint when he observed:
“The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous that want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.” As James Madison, Former President of the USA said, “A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

The land of Bofors, Bhopal, 2G, Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi is blinded by the denial of information. Ignorance, therefore, is not bliss but bondage, and knowledge is not folly but duty, if government by the people is to possess the semblance of reality. The measure of nation’s freedom in its smallest man’s status of international metabolism vis-à-vis public affairs and access to facts. No voyage to freedom from serfdom is navigable without the mind being led forward into action from the depth of truth. And, in the land of the Buddha who preached Light and Gandhi who saw God as truth, in the largest democracy, going by the electoral lists, statutory secrecy is enthroned, what with the official Secrets Act, 1923 of the imperal vintage, and the Commissions of Enquiry Act, 1952, Atomic Energy Act, 1962, etc. all of Swaraj vintage, and a host of other provisions scattered in the books, all to exclude evidence and none to inform. The battle for informational swaraj needs awareness missiles. Usually we demand freedom of information as part of the democratic process. Jefferson and Madison drove home the fundamental nexus between the masses and the administration through popular fuelled by public information.

“It is a dangerous power in the hands of a government; the right to determine what shall be read and what shall be not. And it almost always fails to achieve its object. Those who wish to do so can usually get hold of the prescribed book. In India the power is likely to be misused and has been misused a hundred times. We have to be careful therefore lest one right use of the power is held to justify its misuse on scores of occasions.”

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