Centre for Internet & Society

Calcutta High Court has ordered for protection of whistle blower's privacy in its November 20, 2013 order. The court has directed the government to accept RTI applications without the applicant's personal details.

In the absence of any law for the protection of whistle-blowers in the country, exposing the rampant corruption in our public institutions has become a hazardous occupation, with reports of threat and intimidation and even incidents of murder of whistle-blowers commonplace.[1] With the Whistle blower’s Protection Bill in abeyance and without any strict laws protecting the identities of the whistle-blowers who challenge such a corrupt system, even the mechanisms like the Right to Information Act which are meant to safeguard against systemic abuse and ensure transparency are being severely undermined.

For this reason, the Calcutta High Court’s affirmation of whistle-blowers’ privacy and identity protection is an important development. Through its order on the 20th of November, 2013, the Calcutta High Court held that for the purposes of section 6(2), which requires an application to the Public Information Officer to provide contact details of the applicant, it is sufficient in such application to disclose only the post-box number of the applicant. The court directed the Government to accept RTI applications without personal details or detailed whereabouts, when a post-box number or sufficient detail has been provided to establish contact between the whistle-blower and the authority. However if a public authority has any difficulty contacting the applicant through the Post Box No. the applicant may be asked to provide other contact details. The court further directed that personal details of applicants are not to be posted on the authorities’ websites.

The order, which was notified by the Government last week, ensures to some extent the protection of a whistle-blowers identity, and reduces the chances of the RTI being undermined by threats or acts of violence by those who are a part of the corrupt system, against persons exercising their right to information. However, its implementation is liable to be contingent on the authorities’ interpretation of when it would be “difficult” to establish contact between the authority and the applicant. Certain practical difficulties could also undermine the actual impact of the order, such as the fact that many applications are sent through registered or speed post, which cannot be mailed to a post-box number, especially since ordinary post cannot be tracked online like speed or registered post.[2]

Developing a system in which ordinary citizens do not have to fear retaliation for exposing corruption requires a comprehensive legislation protecting whistle-blowers identities and ensuring data security. However, the important message this judgement sends out is that the judiciary is still committed to protecting whistle-blowers, in lieu of the government’s actions. This is a particularly important stance taken by the Court, considering the Supreme Court in the past has refused to frame guidelines for whistle-blower protection, citing the imperative in enacting a whistle-blower legislation to be the Parliament’s.[3]

A full text of the judgement is available here.

[1].Whistleblower shot dead in Bihar, THE HINDU, available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/whistleblower-shot-dead-in-bihar/article4542293.ece; Tamil Nadu Whistleblower alleges death threats; Silence from Government, NDTV, available at http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/tamil-nadu-whistleblower-alleges-death-threats-silence-from-govt-410450.

[2]. Indian Postal Tracking Portal, http://www.indiapost.gov.in/tracking.aspx.

[3]. Supreme Court refuses to frame guidelines for protection of whistleblowers, Daily News and Analysis, available at http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-supreme-court-refuses-to-frame-guideline-for-protection-of-whistleblowers-1525622.

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