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The Centre is planning to impose new rules related to the Right to Information Act that will mean potential for threats and attacks to RTI activists. According to the new rules, if an RTI applicant dies before the government sends the reply, the application will be closed and the information sought will not be provided. This could potentially put several activists who use this powerful tool to expose corruption in threat.
A report by advocacy group Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative pointed out last year that there have been at least 56 deaths of activists who tried to use the transparency law in order to expose the corrupt. It also highlighted that there were at least 275 more cases like physical assault, threats, intimidation, harassment etc. 51 activists were reported killed and five were reported suicides.
Even the enforcers of the law are not safe from the threats that come along with using the RTI. A report by Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights said: “On July 25, 2010, Uttar Pradesh Police Home Guard, Mr. Babbu Singh was killed allegedly for seeking information about government funds and work was done by his village Pradhan (Head) at Katghar village in Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh.”
The Central Information Commission and state information commissions are not required to provided any protection to applicants under any circumstances. In fact, even in absence of the new rules, the Right to Information Act, 2005 does not offer any protection to RTI applicants from threats, assaults or murder attempts etc. The only deterrent to attacks was the information that he/she could obtain as a safeguard.
The Bombay High Court had in 2010 directed the state government to provide security to applicants if they make complaints of threats or assault due to filing RTIs. However, it is worth noting that at least 10 alleged murders of RTI activists were reported in Maharashtra till 2016, the highest for any state.
To make matters worse, the Whistleblower Protection Act was diluted during this government’s tenure and the list of those exempted was increased. A larger number of issues were made untouchable for whistleblowers even if it meant exposing corruption.
The RTI Act doesn’t keep the identity of applicant anonymous and hence the identity is revealed as soon as the RTI is filed. A petition was filed recently on Change.org against the new RTI rules claiming that they will put lives of RTI applicants at risk. It calls for immediate disclosure of the information sought in an RTI if an applicant dies. It also calls for the government to ensure applicants receive protection if they receive threats due to filing RTIs. The petition has received nearly 95,000 signatures.