26 Feb 2009, 0033 hrs IST, Abhinav Garg, TNN
NEW DELHI: In a major boost to freedom of press, a Delhi court has ruled that the publication of a document merely labelled ``secret'' shall not render the journalist liable under the colonial relic, Official Secrets Act 1923 (OSA).
Additional sessions judge Inder Jeet Singh discharged journalist Santanu Saikia in a case booked against him by the CBI 10 years ago for publishing the contents of a Cabinet note on divestment policy. The CBI case against Saikia, under OSA, had raised eyebrows because it was not uncommon for the media to do stories on the basis of Cabinet papers despite their being a classified secret.
Relying on a 1996 Supreme Court verdict in the case of Sama Alana Abdulla vs State of Gujarat, Singh said that the test of whether a certain disclosure compromised a secret depended on whether an ``official code'' or ``password'' had been divulged in terms of section 5.
The court's liberal interpretation lessens the scope for misuse of the OSA Act by the official machinery as it makes a sharp distinction between a secret document or report dealing with day-to-day routine affairs and one containing information on the sensitive issue of national security.
``The qualifying word secret has to be read in respect of an official code or password'' ASJ Singh clarified, for OSA to be applicable and not just because it says ``secret''.
The main ground on which the court discharged Saikia was that the publication of the disinvestment document was unlikely to affect the sovereignty and integrity of India or the security of the state or friendly relations with foreign states.
The court also recalled the bizarre circumstances in which CBI booked Saikia under OSA in 1999 after a three-year in-house probe to find out how the secret document on disinvestment had been leaked just a day before a Cabinet meeting. Although the prolonged probe yielded no result and the CBI made no recovery from Saikia, a case was registered against him.
On his part Saikia, who argued the case himself in court, pointed out how an archaic Act — framed to nab spies — was being used to harass a journalist in the 21st century. He also argued that in the age of the Right to Information Act where courts and commissions are broadening the ambit of official documents accessible to citizens, a news report on divestment could in no way be seen as an offence inviting penalties as strict as those prescribed under OSA.