When Knowledge is Power

The RTI law in India, particularly if successive governments do not blunt its edge, is the sort of tool that journalism has long needed

Written by Aakar Patel | Published:July 1, 2017 2:04 am
Journalism through RTI: Information Investigation Impact (India)

The Right to Information Act is a law through which citizens can demand information from the government for Rs 10 plus the cost of photocopying documents, if any. The government, Union and state, must appoint information officers to gather and send the material, and there is a fine for non-compliance.

This book tells us that many countries have laws similar to RTI, pioneered by Sweden in 1766. In our neighbourhood, Pakistan legislated it in 2002 under General Musharraf, and today Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka have laws similar to RTI.

India got the law in 2005 under Manmohan Singh. However, many states already had information laws because of citizen pressure, the most prominent being a campaign by the Mazdoor Kishan Shakti Sangathan, led by Aruna Roy. The Delhi government’s Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia were also RTI activists, serving communities and neighbourhoods in Delhi before becoming politicians.

Author Shyamlal Yadav, senior editor with The Indian Express, has been reporting stories using RTI for over a decade. We should believe him when he says that the current government under Narendra Modi shows “no sign that [it] wants to weaken the RTI Act.” However, he cautions that “there are several officials (there are around 2,500 public information officers in the central government) who have started taking RTI provisions casually after the change in regime.” Yadav knows this from first-hand experience, as he writes.

The citizen uses RTI to access information related to personal issues, like passport applications, ration cards, school admissions and so on. Journalists are using it increasingly for source material, particularly for investigative stories, though Yadav admits that India’s media still has not done enough on this count. He says that his paper’s correspondents are routinely trained in the use of RTI. One imagines that the training includes examining the forensic record. Acts of corruption, particularly at the high level, may not be immediately manifest and require the piecing together of material. The book’s second half provides examples of stories which use access to government records.

As may be expected, the quality of the information is not always good and government can choose to be opaque on subjects that it does not want illuminated. Researchers at Amnesty International India (where I work) sent out about 3,000 RTI queries to all the jails in India for information on undertrial prisoners. Much of the material that was returned was gibberish, and it appeared that either the officials did not understand the laws, or they were filling in RTI queries without looking at the record, or the record was poorly maintained.

A phenomenon which the government is sensitive to, is that of frivolous RTI filing. Yadav gives the example of an individual who requested information on statues and busts around the country and then asked if one of his could be installed. This is seen as a drain on resources, and the government often expresses this concern. However, Yadav says that a large number of RTI applications come from within the government itself, through its employees.

One of the interesting things thrown up by the book is the role of the individual activist. We are often told that it is difficult for individuals to make a difference in our part of the world. Yadav profiles the work of Subhash Agarwal, a name many editors will be familiar with because of his regular letter-writing. It was Agarwal’s persistence which got judges to declare assets in their name and the name of their spouses and dependents.

Among the stories that journalism through RTI excavated is one on phone-tapping. Yadav learned in 2012 that the Union government intercepts over 250 phone calls a day. This is not done through any court order, as is required by law in the United States, but the approval of the Union home secretary (who must be an absolute genius if he has the ability to read and approve 250 applications a day, and presumably reject some).

Other stories, such as the travel costs of ministers and so on, are also given as examples. The RTI law, particularly if successive governments are not concerned about blunting its edge, as we are told, is the sort of weapon that journalism has long needed. It relieves reporters of reliance on anonymous sources for information and it reduces the space for deniability.

RTI-based stories will illuminate things that are not currently in the news, because that cycle is rapid and stories and issues from yesterday’s panel discussions are seen as having become dated. However, for those who are not in that business, and this publication and a few others come to mind, it is a transformational tool. Its relatively recent appearance should tell us that those who seek journalism and information that is solid and factual can anticipate an improvement in coverage.

Aakar Patel is execuitve director, Amnesty International India

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