Second Appeal to the RTI Application revealed procedural lapses: only 11 review committee meetings despite 40 Internet Shutdowns in Rajasthan

photo

We at SFLC.in define Internet Shutdowns as "a Government-imposed disablement of access to the Internet as a whole within a particular locality or localities for any duration of time". To track instances of Internet Shutdowns in India, we built an interactive tracker that can be located at: www.internetshutdowns.in. This year, according to our tracker, India has witnessed 130 instances of Internet shutdowns – the highest in the world.

Our tracker records shutdowns on the basis of data collected from media reports (online and offline). Over the course of our shutdowns project, we have expanded to include a citizen reportage mechanism i.e. a method for citizens, in or around affected areas, to bring instances of shutdowns to attention, and share stories on how shutdowns affect them and their communities. Nevertheless, all data recorded by our tracker continues to be secondary, which means that its accuracy is highly dependent on media reportage.

In the absence of any reliable means to gain access to Internet shutdown orders, to get a sense of the true extent of unreported shutdowns (if any), we filed an application under the Right to Information Act 2005 to the Rajasthan Home Department in April 2018 asking various questions, a few of them were as following:What is the exact number of Internet Shutdowns that were ordered in Rajasthan during 07.08.2017 to 01.05.2018?” and “How many meetings of the Review Committee [as per the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017] have taken place in the said time period and requested copies of the minutes of these meetings, including file notes.”

In response to our RTI application, the Home Department responded by stating that our applications had been forwarded to various district-level departments as the requisite information was available with them. When we received further replies from districts of Rajasthan, it was revealed that there have been 40 instances of Internet shutdowns between 07.08.2017 and 01.05.2018 across different districts. Considering that our tracker had recorded only 14 instances of Internet shutdowns across all of Rajasthan during the same time period, we gathered that there were at least 26 unreported instances of Internet shutdowns in Rajasthan alone during the eight-odd months in question. A detailed note on these replies ,as received from the Home Department, Government of Rajasthan can be found at: https://sflc.in/rti-reply-rajasthan-home-department-reveals-21-unreported-internet-shutdowns

However, the Home Department refused to furnish any information vis-a-vis the number of review committee meetings and copies of minutes of these meetings. They submitted that the information requested was classified information related to the security of the nation and hence was exempted from being shared under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005. We filed first appeal to Home (Appeal), Department, State of Rajasthan on the basis of two main grounds : 1. That the requested information does not fall within the ambit of Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005. While the minutes of the meeting may be classified, the number of meetings conducted to review the suspension orders are not per se classified. Moreover, citizens have a right to know the safeguards and measures implemented towards protecting their freedom of speech and therefore, access to information sought is in the larger interest of the public; and 2. That Section 10 of the RTI Act, 2005 should have been applied and officer should have provided at least that part of the information which can reasonably be severed from any part that is believed to contain prejudicial information.

The First Appellate Authority failed to give a satisfactory reply to for refusal to grant the information sought. In fact, it vaguely rejected the appeal by giving unsubstantiated reasons. Not only did the FAA fail to specify the substantial reason against which such a rejection may be preferred, it also failed to explain and provide reasons as to how the disclosure of sought information affects the security of State. The State Public Information Officer (SPIO) claimed exemption under Sec. 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005 without offering any explanation whatsoever, and the Appellate Authority merely upheld the decision of the SPIO. Unsatisfied by this decision, we filed a second appeal. The second appeal was admitted and heard.

The State Information Commission of Rajasthan dismissed the appeal stating that the State Home Department shall furnish all the information that does not affect the security of the state. As a result, we received a response from Home Department stating that there have been 11 review committee meetings in the said time period: 07.08.2017 to 01.05.2018. Out of 11, the department shared copies of minutes of only six meetings, they claimed national security exemption to prevent sharing the remaining information.

It can be gathered from our existing data and the RTI responses that there have been 40 instances of Internet shutdowns across all of Rajasthan during the time period: 07.08.2017 to 01.05.2018. Of these, at least 29 instances of Internet shutdowns in Rajasthan did not have a review committee meeting during the eight months in question.

The response from State Home Department, Rajasthan to SFLC.in's Second Appeal is provided below: