Access to Public Information
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Closed Expands Expression
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The Supreme Court of India held that Indian voters have a right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution to obtain information about political candidates. The People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) challenged the validity of a 1951 law, which stated that political candidates were not bound to disclose any information not required under the law. The Court reasoned that the availability of basic information about the candidates enables voters to make an informed decision and also paves the way for public debates on the merits and demerits of candidates.
The People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) challenged the validity of Section 33B of the Representation of People Act, 1951. Section 33B provided that, notwithstanding a judgment or order of the court or Election Commission, an electoral candidate is not bound to disclose any information apart from that required under the Act. In Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms, (2002) 3 S.C.R. 294, the Supreme Court of India recognized that the right to know about electoral candidates falls within the right to information available under the right to freedom of speech and expression described in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. It further indicated that information about the criminal background of candidates, assets and liabilities of candidates and their family members, and educational qualifications of candidates should be available to the voters as part of their right.
The Election Commission issued directives to effect this judgment. However, Section 33B made ineffective the judgment in that case and other directives. Thus, the PUCL challenged Section 33B as violative of Article 19(1)(a).
P. Venkatarma Reddi, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. The Supreme Court of India reiterated that Article 19(1)(a) includes the right of voters to have basic information about electoral candidates. In a democracy, the will of the people is expressed in periodic elections. Availability of basic information about the candidates enables voters to make an informed decision and also paves the way for public debates on merits and demerits of candidates. This in turn goes a long way in promoting freedom of speech and expression, and also ensures the integrity of the electoral process in a democracy. Further, freedom of expression is not limited to oral or written expression, but also includes voting as a form of expression. Even though the right to vote itself may not be a fundamental right, the expression of opinion through the final act of casting a vote is part of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a).
A liberal approach to the disclosure of information about an electoral candidate is desirable. However, compelling a person to disclose personal information affects the person’s privacy. There is a need to draw a line between the voters’ right and candidates’ privacy. The legislature must apply its mind and lay down the criteria on which information must be disclosed. In the absence of such a law, in the case of Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms, (2002) 3 S.C.R. 294, the Court gave certain broad indicators for disclosure in order to give effect to the right under Article 19(1)(a). The Election Commission directives based on this judgment were meant to operate only until the time legislature enacted an appropriate law. While these points of disclosure serve as broad indicators for enacting a law, the legislature must give them due weight.
The Court concluded that Section 33B of the Representation of People Act, 1951, was unconstitutional. Firstly, it froze and stagnated the right to information by nullifying the effect of any order or judgment requiring disclosure of information. Instead, the right to information is a dynamic right that should be allowed to grow. Secondly, the Act inadequately required disclosure of information with respect to criminal background of the candidates, and assets and liabilities of candidates and their spouse and children. However, the Court held that by not providing for disclosure of educational qualifications, it cannot be said that Article 19(1)(a) has been violated.
The Court directed the Election Commission to issue revised instructions in accordance with the law laid down in this judgment.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Court expanded the scope of the right of voters with respect to information about electoral candidates.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Indian Supreme Court decisions are binding on all courts throughout the territory of India.
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