The Public Information Officer (PIO) must provide copies of the Review Committee’s findings on internet shutdown orders in Jammu & Kashmir under RTI, directed the First Appellate Authority (FAA) in J&K’s Home Department on August 16, 2023, according to a report by the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). The FAA’s order comes in response to a first appeal filed by the IFF in June this year challenging the non-disclosure of Review Committee orders in response to an RTI query.
According to the order, the FAA has allowed the PIO to withhold information that may attract exemptions under Section 8 of the RTI Act but stated that such specific provisions must be explicitly indicated in the RTI response.
Why did IFF file an appeal? IFF had filed an RTI application with the J&K Home Department seeking details on the number of internet shutdown orders issued in the Union Territory since January 2020, whether a Review Committee was formed to review these shutdown orders, and the findings of such a committee, among other queries. In June 2023, The PIO denied disclosure of the findings of the Review Committee, stating that the information is exempted under Section 8 of the RTI Act.
IFF filed a First Appeal stating that orders of the Review Committee are not exempt under Section 8 of the RTI Act and that the reply of the PIO was “devoid of reasons and suffered from non-application of mind”.
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What is Section 8 of the RTI Act?
Section 8 of the RTI Act provides exemption to specific information from disclosure under any RTI requests. Among other conditions, the conditions provide for exemption if:
“information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence”.
According to the FAA’s order, the PIO has argued that the “details and circumstances” of telecom services suspension orders have a “direct bearing on the internal security”, are sensitive and require confidentiality.
The FAA noted that in case of denial of the information under Section 8, the PIO is required to provide “satisfactory reasons” for the same, without which the information cannot be denied. The Authority informed that in the present case, the PIO has neither quoted the relevant sub-clause of Section 8 nor has “conveyed legitimate grounds” for withholding such information.
Why it matters:
The Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017, which empowers the State government to suspend telecom services, mandates the formation of a Review Committee in all states to review the legality of such orders and record its findings. While instances of internet shutdowns have only increased, it is unclear if the authorities are adhering to the guidelines prescribed by the Supreme Court in the Anuradha Bhasin case, as these findings are not available for the public’s perusal. The SC guidelines reiterated the role of Review Committees in checking if the internet shutdowns fit well within the principle of proportionality and whether they extend beyond the necessary duration.
The Parliament Standing Committee on Information Technology had pulled up the Department of Telecommunications for not monitoring the functioning of the Review Committees in states where internet shutdowns are ordered. Further, it has been reported in the past that the Review Committees are slacking in terms of effectively reviewing the orders. A lack of information on the reasons for which Internet shutdowns are issued also make it difficult to challenge such orders in court. The J&K FAA’s order seems to be setting a positive precedent for accessing information on internet shutdowns in other states as well.
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