Official Secrets Act (OSA)

Official Secrets Act (OSA)

  • OSA broadly deals with two aspects — spying or espionage and disclosure of secret information of the government.
  • However, the OSA does not define secret information, the government follows the Manual of Departmental Security Instructions, 1994 for classifying a document as secret.
  • Generally, secret information includes 
    • Spying or entry into a prohibited place etc.
    • Wrongful communication
    • Harbouring spies
    • Unauthorized use of uniforms, falsification of reports, etc.
    • Interference with the police or military, near a prohibited place.
    • If guilty, a person may get up to 14 years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. Both the person communicating the information and the person receiving the information can be punished under the OSA.

History About Official Secrets Act, 1923

  • The origins of the Official Secrets Act can be dated back to the British colonial period. The Indian Official Secrets Act (Act XIV) of 1889 was enacted to suppress the voices of many newspapers that had grown up in different languages and were critical of British policy.
  • During Lord Curzon’s period as Viceroy of India, Act XIV was amended and made more stringent in the form of The Indian Official Secrets Act 1904.
  • A second version of the Indian Official Secrets Act was notified in 1923. (Act No XIX of 1923).
  • It was extended to cover all issues related to secrecy and confidentiality in the country’s governance.

Provisions Covered Under Official Secrets Act, 1923

  • It applies to high-ranking government officials entrusted with sensitive information, as well as individuals contracted or employed by such officials on behalf of the government.
  • The term “foreign agent” refers to someone reasonably believed to be working for a foreign power in any capacity.
  • Entering or assisting others in entering prohibited locations threatens the state’s safety.
  • Engaging in activities such as accessing forbidden areas, creating sketches or plans for the benefit of enemies, collecting and sharing secret codes, passwords, documents, or notes that could aid enemies, and disregarding the state’s security and supremacy are punishable offenses.
  • Violation of the act may result in imprisonment for up to three years, with the possibility of an extended sentence for offenses related to the safety and sovereignty of the state.

Criticism Of Official Secrets Act, India

In contrast with the Right to Information Act

  • The Official Secrets Act has often been considered to be in direct conflict with the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005.
  • Section 22 of the RTI Act lays down its supremacy over other laws, including the Official Secrets Act.
  • Hence, if the Official Secrets Act has any discrepancies regarding information exposure, the RTI Act shall take precedence.
  • The government can, however, retain information under Sections 8 and 9 of the RTI Act.
  • In effect, if the government categorizes a document as confidential under the Official Secrets Act, it can be retained outside the purview of the RTI Act.

Related Links: Right to Information (RTI) Act