It is disturbing to learn that a human rights worker is under investigation after he filed a Right to Information (RTI) request with police, asking about the number of people accused and arrested under the Digital Security Act (DSA) between 2018 and 2021. According to a report, Saad Hammadi, who works for Amnesty International in Sri Lanka, filed the request in mid-2021. After being denied twice, he took it up with the Information Commission where, on January 11, 2022, a legal representative of the police said that the information was "highly sensitive" and sharing it could "obstruct the enforcement of law," citing an exemption clause of the RTI Act. He also questioned Hammadi's motive for seeking information while sitting in another country. And at a hearing on February 22, the commission instructed the police to verify his background by going to his present and permanent addresses.
This unexpected turn of events—turning the spotlight from a public interest disclosure to an investigation of the person requesting said disclosure—is noteworthy as it shows how far off the target we are in terms of ensuring access to public information, despite there being a law precisely for that purpose. It also makes us wonder: What is so sensitive about the number of DSA lawsuits, accused and arrestees? It's already a part of public records and should be accessible for anyone. It's also unclear in what scenario could it lead to obstruction of law enforcement. Even if we buy into the claims that the data is "highly sensitive," we must admit that it's one thing to interpret the possible outcome of a disclosure, and another thing to try and discredit a citizen by casting doubts on his motive and identity. This doesn't sit well with the police's claim of transparency either.
We're equally baffled by the response of the Information Commission. As an RTI expert said in a column in an English newspaper, "information-seekers find themselves in a quandary when the Information Commission itself concurs with the denial of information by the authorities concerned." Some of the exemption clauses under Section 7 of the RTI Act have been questioned for the wide latitude they give to government agencies to disregard information requests. The commission should know that the harmonization of the citizens' right to know and the government's right to protect public interest is a key part of its job, which it must do in a manner so that the citizens are not discouraged from using the RTI law.
By now, there should be no doubt about the devastating effects of the DSA and how it has been frequently abused to target dissenting voices. Any attempt to disclose information illustrating the actual situation should be welcomed, instead of allowing the scope for further abuse. We urge the commission to ensure that everyone using the RTI law is protected and empowered.