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Mediawatch: Freedom of Information

While the media debate around the Freedom of Information Bill has focused on the tensions within the government on the issue, the media has not made a strong enough plea for extending public access to official documents and information.

In many countries which profess democracy, government files are made open to the public after 30 years, on the theory that the public has the right to know after a given length of time what had transpired in earlier years. Confidential files are declassified. Not long ago, the US government made available documents pertaining to the Indian subcontinent during the years 1965 to 1973 concerning the 1965 war, the East Pakistan crisis in 1971 and the break-up of Pakistan. The documents consisted of telegrams, aerogrammes, etc, to and from the state department, memoranda of conversations with heads of governments, foreign ministers, important political leaders and confidential letters to the US president and minutes of meetings at the state department. All these documents are now freely available in Washington DC. But try getting similar documents in New Delhi and one will come across a granite wall. Even 50 years after independence the Indian government continues to deny historians, journalists and social scientists access to numerous important documents even of the colonial era by invoking the Official Secrets Act (OSA). This issue was recently raised in the Indian Express, August 24, by Madhu Kishwar and Manoj Mitta, both of whom held that it is about time the government becomes less secretive.

In his article Mitta said that “the much-awaited Freedom of Information Bill introduced in the current session of parliament seems to take no account of the vastly changing scenario” and that “the proposed legislation is entirely government-centric as though the state machinery were still the only repository of all the information that affects the people at large”. The bill, wrote Mitta, “is likely to be of little use to all those who seek information from the private sector in their capacity as investors, consumers, environmental victims or journalists”. What is worse, the bill seems specifically to exempt many classes of government-held information (such as file notings of the ministers and bureaucrats) from its purview. The bill has presently been referred to a parliamentary committee to suggest improvements but the time surely has come for the public to demand access to information that is over 30 years old.

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