Access to Public Information
Dotcom Trading 121 (PTY) Ltd v. King
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On July 16, 2020, the High Court of Manipur ordered the state government to share all information with the general public under the Right to Information Act, 2005 in relation to any action taken by it towards combating the COVID-19 crisis including action taken in in connection with spending public money on the infrastructure, manpower and facilities in the quarantine centers. The petitioner submitted that there were insufficient quarantine centres in the districts to accommodate all the returning inhabitants such as students and migrant workers and that the facilities provided in the existing quarantine centres in relation to health, infrastructure, food etc. were poorly regulated and inadequate. Further, they did not follow the guidelines or standard operating procedures issued by the WHO and the National Centre for Disease Control. The judges noted that much of the public outcry regarding the quarantine facilities could have been avoided if the necessary information about the available resources had been shared with the public.
The public interest litigation was filed by an Advocate who had been working on various issues of public importance and was associated with the Human Rights Law Network. The petitioner prayed for a number of directions including the setting up of an hygienic and proper COVID-19 quarantine center in all of Manipur’s districts, ensuring regular visits of doctors to quarantine facilities, appointing adequate counselors, sanitation workers, security personnel, doctors and psychologists to the centers, and providing essential items like food, soap and sanitizers to all the patients. The petition also requested the government authorities to call for records regarding quarantine facilities and to follow recommendations issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Centre for Disease Control.
The present case was presided over by Justices Lanusungkum Jamir and Kh. Nobin Singh of the High Court of Manipur. The central issue related to the adequacy of quarantine facilities and the sufficiency of steps taken by the government of Manipur in combating COVID-19. The petitioner had claimed that quarantine facilities in the state were poorly regulated, devoid of satisfactory doctors and psychosocial support and ignored physical distancing norms [p. 4.3].
The judges noted the failure of the government to constitute a State Level Committee consisting of experts and a lack of exhaustive rules and regulations to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, and observed that the other reasons for the public outcry regarding the functioning of the quarantine centers was due to the failure of government to share information about its financial capacity and the amount of money being spent towards combating COVID-19. According to the judges, the government had also failed to share information about the type and standard of facilities provided in the quarantine centers [p. 11].
The judges discussed State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain [(1975) 4 SCC 428], Dinesh Trivedi v. Union of India [(1997) 4 SCC 306] and People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India [(2004) 2 SCC 476] to emphasize that the right of information is a facet of the freedom of speech and expression as contained in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. They also reiterated the jurisprudence which held that people have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries and to be kept informed of the vital decisions taken by the government to ensure the continued participation of the people in the democratic process [p. 11].
The judges observed that the state government was required to “share any kind information about its financial capacity and various actions being taken by it from time to time and [to make the public] aware of it so that it becomes easier for them to extend cooperation.” The Court further emphasized that “public money is nothing but taxpayers’ money and the state government, before spending it, needs to inform the public of the amount intended or earmarked to be spent; the amount already spent; and the amount yet to be spent, because the standard of facilities to be provided in the quarantine center will depend upon it” [p. 12].
Therefore, the judges directed the government to share all the information except that exempted under section 8 of the Right to Information Act, 2005, with the general public relating to any action taken by it towards combating the COVID-19 crisis including action relating to spending public money, infrastructure, manpower and facilities in the quarantine centers [p. 13].
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
During the period of global crisis when the government officials are trying to escape accountability by trying to restrict access to information, the High Court of Manipur expanded the freedom of expression and right to information by directing the State government to share all the relevant details regarding expenditure on COVID-19, quarantine facilities etc. with the general public to ensure their coordination in combating the pandemic.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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