Public’s right to information vs. national security interest

Synopsis:   This article summarises the opinions and views of the former home secretary of India (G.K. Pillai) and retired Indian diplomat (Syed Akbaruddin). They provide their opinion regarding the public’s right to information vs. national security interest.

Background
  • Recently, the Government of India prohibited retired officials of security and intelligence organisations from publishing anything about their work or organisation without prior clearance from the head of the organisation.
  • Though some restrictions on sharing of sensitive information related to the government are necessary, there is a need to ensure the public’s right to information by declassifying files in a timely manner.

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Are restrictions based on national security interest justifiable?
  • One, officers of intelligence and security organisations and other departments are exposed to a lot of sensitive information. So, there needs to be some government control over that information.
  • Two, there is a near-universal consensus among decision-makers, around the world, that some measure of secrecy is necessary to protect authorised national security activities.
  • Three, no rights to freedom of expression can be absolute; they will always be restricted in certain contexts.
  • However, there are certain ambiguities that need to be addressed. For instance, the notification calls for lifelong restriction and the word Sensitive information is not clearly defined.
  • According to G.K. Pillai, there needs to be a time limit of 5 years after retirement rather than imposing lifelong restrictions. Because, in five years, operational information that is actually more sensitive will not be of concern in most cases.

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How to balance the public’s right to information vs. national security interest?
  • One way of addressing this dilemma is by providing the information to the public through the declassification of files. A declassification is an important tool in raising public awareness after a specified period.
  • For instance, In the US, at the end of 30 years, after a rigorous examination, they declassify most files and make them available in the public domain. However, In India, the availability of declassified information is less.
  • Also, a consequence of extreme secrecy will produce undesirable effects such as the explosion of deep throats (secret informant who provided information). That is not good for any society.
Way forward
  • A free and democratic country should guarantee the free flow of information and the right of the public to be aware of situations.
  • Information can be revealed without, revealing national secrets or difficult situations.
  • The government needs to prioritise declassification of the top-secret files that are of less relevance today.

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Source: The Hindu

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