Thursday 11th Aug 2022
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India

Questions on Indian Military Aircraft--Defence Ministry Stumped

The Ministry of Defence were summoned for a hearing at the Information Commission yesterday after the Ministry had declined to honour an RTI (Right To Information) request lodged by local newspaper, Dhiyares.
Dhiyares had requested the Ministry to provide a copy of the agreement signed between the Maldives and India authorizing the operation and maintenance of an Indian military-owned Dornier-228 aircraft within Maldivian borders. Dhiyares had appealed with the Information Commission following the Ministry's refusal to honour the request.
The Information Commissioner, Hussain Fiyaz, questioned the Ministry of Defence during today's hearing. The Commissioner asked if any information regarding the Dornier agreement had been published till date. The Information Officer for the Ministry of Defence, Mohamed Shimaaah, responded that a news article regarding the aircraft , detailing the reasons for its presence in the Maldives, had been published on the Maldivian National Defence Force's (MNDF) website.
The Commissioner agreed to having seen this information and accepted that the MNDF had published this information on their official Twitter account, as well. Also, he highlighted that the Indian High Commission in the Maldives had, in a tweet published on September 29 (the day the Dornier had been brought in), detailed the day on which the agreement had been signed, and affirmed that the aircraft would bear the MNDF's colours and insignia, and that Maldivian pilots would be used to operate the aircraft. He asked if any of these points had been included in the agreement and if so, he asked for the basis on which these points were disclosed.
Avoiding the question, Shimah responded that all information that could be disclosed about the agreement had already been disclosed. Fiyaz repeated his questions: were these points part of the agreement, and if so, on what basis were these points disclosed?
"When you classify information, you must justify why you have chosen to classify or disclose that piece of information," the Information Commissioner said.
As the Ministry of Defence had previously claimed that the agreement was a "secret" agreement, the Commissioner inquired as to why information about the agreement had been publicly disclosed.
The Information Officer for the Defence Ministry responded with the same answer to the Information Commissioner's repeated questioning. Fiyaz said that the case could only progress if the Ministry of Defence were to co-operate and answer the questions as asked and that if they were unable to answer any question: they should clearly say so.
Member of the Revision Committee at the Ministry of Defence, Faiz, responded that whatever information that had been mentioned about the Dornier aircraft "may possibly be" part of the agreement, or they may be part of "something else". Faiz failed to mention what the "something else" could possibly be. Faiz clarified that information had been classified in the interests of "national security", and that there was no way to disclose such information.
The Information Commissioner then asked why the Ministry of Defence had declined to honour the RTI request, especially since the information requested did include information that was permitted to be disclosed. Shimah responded that the RTI had requested for the entire agreement and that it was "impossible" to disclose the agreement in its entirety. Fiyaz responded that, by law, the agreement could be disclosed after having sensitive portions of it redacted. Once again, Fiyaz asked for the basis on which information about this "secret" agreement had been disclosed and stated that it was obligatory that the Ministry answer the question.
After having the question repeated twice, Faiz responded that he did not believe that the law obligated disclosure of the basis or principle on which prior information had been disclosed. Also, he mentioned that it had never been said that information that had so far been disclosed was included within the agreement, but rather it was information related to the agreement.
Fiyaz said that on reviewing all of the information disclosed by the MNDF and the Indian High Commission regarding the Dornier aircraft, particularly the use of MNDF insignia and colours; it was "clear", on the basis of "common sense", that these were matters that must have been included in the agreement. He said that if these bits of information from the agreement had been disclosed, then it was likely that other parts of the agreement could also be disclosed. Fiyaz then asked for the basis on which information that had been withheld from the public had been classified in the first place.
Faiz repeated that the information had been disclosed in the interests of national security.
Fiyaz responded that if a body of the state was denying the people's right to information, that body had to prove that this information was being denied in the best interests of the people. He explained that this was why he repeated his line of questioning. He also said that while a lot of information about the Dorner aircraft had been disclosed, the Ministry's claim that disclosing more information would strain Maldives-India relations would have to be proven and clarified. The Ministry's warnings that disclosing such information was a threat to national security would also require an explanation of the danger being posed. Simply claiming that a national security threat existed was not, said Fiyaz, proof of one.
Faiz responded that the role of the Information Commissioner was to facilitate the retrieval of information when requested, and to explain why the information was not found if none could be retrieved. Faiz claimed that he did not believe that digging into the details of the matter was part of the Information Commissioner's scope of responsibility.
"The MNDF have disclosed that Maldivian pilots would be used. This means that using Maldivian pilots had been mentioned somewhere within the agreement. If this is true, then couldn't we be given a copy of that clause from the agreement?"
Ahmed Azaan, Dhiyares
Ahmed Azaan from "Dhiyares", who lodged the RTI request, was present at the hearing and stated that based on the information disclosed by the MNDF, so far, it was clear that the agreement was not, in its entirety, a classified document.

"The MNDF have disclosed that Maldivian pilots would be used. This means that using Maldivian pilots had been mentioned somewhere within the agreement. If this is true, then couldn't we be given a copy of that clause from the agreement?"

Citing the boundaries set by Article 68 of the Constitution, Azaan mentioned that surveying the practices regarding military agreements in democratic countries around the world: a military agreement could only be classified if disclosing it posed a real threat. Azaan asked the representatives of the Ministry of Defence if they could explain how, exactly, would the Maldives be in danger if the agreement was made public? The Ministry of Defence did not respond.

The Information Commissioner continued his interrogation of the representative of the Ministry of Defence, but to no avail. The Commissioner invited the representatives of the Ministry of Defence to consult with experts on the matter and return with answers to his questions at a later time once they were better informed. Information Officer Shimah requested for such a reprieve, to which the Information Commissioner asked of them to respond to the questions asked at the hearing in 1 week, in writing.

It is expected that the case would reach its conclusion at the next hearing that will be held.