The constitutional freedom to use and publicise information is directly affected by the provisions of the Official Secrets Act, 1923, which as with most of British India enactments followed the Official Secrets Act, 1920, passed by the British Parliament.

Background –

It was strict enough then but after Independence in ‘free India’ we amended it and made it stricter in 1967, widening the scope of Section 5 (“Wrongful communication. etc., of information”) and enlarging the scope of Section 8 (“Duty of giving information as to commission of offences”).

The Journey –

  • Official Secrets Act, 1923 has been so frequently misused, so it ought to have been repealed when India got independence.
  • In fact when the Janata government which came to power at the end of the Internal Emergency, and set up what was then known as the Second Press Commission, it was chaired by a great and good judge, Justice Goswami of the Supreme Court of India.
  • The Commission proceeded in great earnestness for months, and ultimately, when its report was ready in December 1979, a report that implored the government of the day to immediately repeal the Official Secrets Act, 1923, it never saw the light of day.
  • Indira Gandhi, who came back to power in January 1980 promptly dissolved and disbanded the Justice Goswami Commission. It was replaced by the now officially known Second Press Commission presided over by Justice K.K. Mathew. The Official Second Press Commission (the Mathew Commission) did not recommend the repeal of the Official Secrets Act of 1923.

Way forward –

  • The press must serve the governed, not those who govern. In his famous Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln described good governance as “of the people, by the people and for the people”. Centuries later we do understand the “of”, and are willing to tolerate the “by” but unfortunately we keep forgetting the “for”.
  • If government is indeed for the people, it has a solemn obligation to keep the people well informed. Fortunately, the modern trend in today’s world is towards less secrecy and more information.
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations way back in 1966, specifically includes the right to freedom of expression, defined as “the freedom to seek, receive and impart the information and ideas of all kinds”. India had ratified it in 1979, which must be kept in letter and spirit.

Conclusion –

The Janata government signed and ratified this Covenant in 1979, but none of the later Governments has lived up to its ideals. We have enacted Article 19(1)(a) in our 1950 Constitution with extremely limited restrictions — in Article 19(2) — but again only paid lip service to freedom of speech and expression. It is therefore, time to repeal the draconian law to preserve the sanctity of freedoms enshrined in Part III of our Constitution.

SourceThe Hindu