95. RTI and Media

RTI: WEAPON IN THE HANDS OF MEDIA

When the govt of India passed the Right to Information Act little did the political elites realize that they had practically armed the people of India with an institutionalized mechanism that could hold the government with its replaceable politicians and irreplaceable bureaucracy accountable for public policy decisions. Suddenly, a system of inefficiency hiding under archaic laws and babu control was opened up for scrutiny. Social and anti corruption activists first used the Act to expose the high and mighty. The activists first scrutinized the information and followed it up with a public interest litigation to meet their objectives, for the media it was a Godsent initiative to break into the opaque but highly networked Indian bureaucracy.

When the Act was introduced it carried the provision that pinpointed who was responsible for the delay especially with regard to signatures of officers. It revealed which department and which officer was responsible for the procedural delay but within the first 8 months of the stinging Act being executed, there were several attempts at diluting it  especially, the information regarding which officers signed or passed the file.  The dilution came soon and the officer records on files were removed.

In spite of the dilution, the media benefited from the Act of 2005 by getting access to accounts and public policy decisions,the award of govt contracts, reports of various departments. The information scrutinized helped in unraveling a series of corruption scandals within various government departments. Just like how the media takes indirect shelter under the right to freedom of speech and expression in Article 19 1 (a), so does it shelter itself with a citizen centric governance reform. However, the danger has always been the dilution of the Act. With very few working days in the Parliament and   passage of laws at record rates, the media and the citizen should be alert against the dilution of an act such as the RTI.

How can the RTI be further strengthened?

Is media using the act judiciously?

How much of the original act has been diluted ?

This is the Second post by Mr. Ajit Abraham. His next post  will be on Censoring the Net

9 thoughts on “95. RTI and Media

  1. Answer 1.

    RTI is a “brahamastra” in the hand of citizens of India against corruption, inefficiency and arbitrary decisions of Politicians and Bureaucrats promoting accountability and transparency. Instead of diluting it, it should be strengthened and given more teeth. It should be augmented well as an effective tool of “participative democracy”.

    1. All the departments should come up with policy of open governance using IT Technology by which they should maintain information portals where all the details, public procurement related documents, orders, documents, performance audit reports, accounts details related to that department should be maintained and regularly updated. This will automatically reduce number of RTI applications automatically as public would be able to access the information through these portals more easily and would lead to less workload on Information Commissioners. (There is a proposal to set-up such portal known as data.gov.in on the line of USA data portal, where most of the information would be publically available while some would be accessible via registration process against payment of nominal fee.)

    2. There has been trend to prevent publishing reports on the account of National Security. This should be debated as safety related reports related to Nuclear Plants are also important from Public safety and interest point of view and it should be considered that relevant portions of such reports are made public without compromising with national security. As far as argument related to technicality of such reports are concerned, I think public opinion can be formed by expert interpretation.

    3. Effective steps should be taken to reduce the delay currently happening and increasing refusal of information by PIOs and subsequently not enough applications are taken further to their conclusive end. The role of Chief Information Commissioners becomes very important and rules related to timely delivery and accurate delivery of information should be implemented strictly and in the lack of it officials should be penalized.

    Answer 2.

    Media is using the RTI tool very effectively to bring about many issues, capricious decisions and corruption matters in the limelight. For instance, media and RTI activists have found very important information related to 2G case, coal allocation case, Adarsh scam case and other matters and mounted pressure on government and helped making the public opinion. At times, however media also become biased and judgmental and run for sensational revelations and sometimes frivolous in place of using RTI as an institutional tool, for instance one RTI application was about how many mugs are ordered by particular department in last 10 years!!

    Answer 3.

    There was attempt to dilute the original act by Union Cabinet which decided to bring in amendments to the Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005 that will curtail public scrutiny of file notings by restricting access to them. This would have been restricted public’s access to the information about how the decisions are made in government and based on what rational. This would have seriously jeopardized the act. Already under section 8, file notings which belong to broad list of subjects – national security, threat to life of a person, foreign relations etc –are exempted from RTI Act 2005 so further limitations would cause definite dilution of the act. However after wide protest by civil society these were taken back.

    There are instances of dilution of RTI Act in certain states where some rules are changed or new rules are introduced to make life difficult of a person who seeks information. For example in Maharashtra rules were introduced such as – word-cap of 150 words on all RTI applications, an RTI application can henceforth relate to ‘only one subject matter’. These rules are already challenged in HC and should be declared illegal.

  2. 1. Right to information act, enacted half a day ago have had several victories and few disappointments. A number of changes should be implemented such that the Act now is improvement.
    First of all the independence of the commissioners should never be compromised.
    Secondly, the article 4 which advocates archiving information should be implemented seriously.
    Another important provision which has been neglected is article 26. It requires that government spread awareness among the people. Training programs and assistance to information seeker should be provided by government.
    Providing security to the RTI activists is also a important issue. Recent killings of RTI activists have exposed the most cruel form of defiance.
    Timely disposal of queries is yet another area of concern.

    The involvement of civil societies is also another critical areas. Allegations that these organizations are funded by ‘foreign hands’ pursuing its own interests have been levied. This is a serious concerns and steps should be taken to implement norms so that RTI does not make the Government weak.

  3. Ways to Strengthen RTI :-
    1) Protection for Whistle Blower and setting up a Lokpal can greatly help in bringing justice to the scam tainted disclosures through RTI.
    2) Transparency can be greatly enhanced by making use of IT technology. And lead time for getting information can be largely reduced also lessening the burden on officials to go through large number of applications.
    3) Leaving matters related to internal security decisions, RTI should have its scope expanded to all other matters including political conducts and business transactions.
    4) Sometimes officials take wrong advantages of not so ingeniously drafted RTI applications and try to avert from giving intended information to the requestor. This sometimes limits its use to common people. NGO can really come forward to help people in this regard in bringing out informations hidden under the carpet.

    Moreover above than all this, a cultural mindset has to be changed among the officials that its not just rightful right of civilians to demand informations about their rightful concerns but its also a bounded duty of officers who shall be under oath to provide all such relevant informations to civilians on demand, notwithstanding which, he shall be kept under inquiry or case for prosecution can be made against him.

  4. IS MEDIA USING THE ACT JUDICIOUSLY ?

    Yeah for sure,we can accept this statement with contentment since the time RTI came in place, due to judicious use by media, a list of scams start getting surfaced one by one, which otherwise would have gone unnoticed as happened in Pre-RTI days. Credit to both the ‘golden medium’ provided by RTI and the ‘ingenious user’ Media for bringing up scams in 2G,Spectrum,Commonwealth,Defence Truck Dealings, Adarsh Scam, Auction of Coal Blocks, Black Money. Media did not spare information even on expenditure incurred on Ex-President Foreign Travels. This only shows that media armed with RTI can play a bigger role of being a fourth pillar of democracy more effectively and more efficiently. We should welcome this new face uplift of Media.

  5. How can the RTI be further strengthened?
    Let there be no legislation passed to dilute RTI and Whistle blower should be protected and encouraged.
    Is media using the act judiciously?
    I could see large section of individuals using RTI as a weapon against corruption and wrong decision made. But I rarely see media using RTI to greater extent. Now a day most of the media tend to use any information to mobilise publicity of its media house rather than do’s and don’ts to parties involved.
    How much of the original act has been diluted ?
    ( Please mention. I don’t know)

  6. How can RTI be further strengthend:
    1. Spread RTI broadly and deeply into villages to make it an intrinsic part
    of local communities by making the process a little more simple.

    2. Spreading awareness among rural youth as they can spread information and acquired
    awareness into local communities.

    3. Making use of advanced technologies in archiving information will allow retrieving
    the information at the earliest and aid in quick disposal of the cases.
    Setting up information kiosks at the taluka/mandal levels to access desired information
    will bringin more rural people to use RTI.

    4. RTI, no doubt is a weapon in the hands of every citizen, which can be used to expose
    corruption and bring transparency in the working of the bureaucracy and legistlation.
    But if this has to be done at the cost of one’s life, we better think of revoking RTI,
    declare fundamental rights to be void. Protecting whistleblowers should have been the
    first and foremost aspect that should have been considered while introduing RTI.
    Nonetheless, it is not too late to pass the Whistleblower’s Protection Bill to make
    RTI a very effective means of bringing in tranparency an accountability.

    Is media using the act judiciously ?
    While we can say that media to a large extent media is using RTI judiciously
    to highlight and even investigate issues that concern larger public interest,
    it is not true about all sections of media and differnt media houses.

    Media did an exceptional job in bringing out scams such as 2G spectrun allocation,
    Coal block allocation, Adarsh scam, Common wealth games scam, etc., which caused
    the ex-chequer a loss amounting to lakhs of crores.

    Media should also commended for bringing to public attention how
    irrational decisons were taken in “privatization of the Delhi Jal board”,
    which if implemented would have made drinking water costlier by six times.

    But with the association of media with ploitical parties, and even some
    media houses being controlled/run by “big corporates”, the media rather than
    aiding “good governance”, is serving their owners by filing RTIs which relate
    only to these “private entities”.

    Asking CJI questions like “Why did you attend Nani Palkhivala Lecture?
    What time did you leave? Did you eat lunch or had tea?
    Which lawyer invited you for the function?” does not make any sense.

    There were also cases reported where local media houses and personnel using
    RTI as a medium for blackmailing. Although the percentage of such cases is
    less, the media should impose self-restrictions in using RTI irrationally.

    Some of the dilutions made to RTI:
    1. Information received in confidence from foreign governments, trade secrets.
    2. Information which can impede the process of investigation
    (IIRC, information received from some European banks was not disclosed citing this reason)
    3. Information which would cause “Breach of parliament” will not be disclosed.
    4. Information related to integrity and sovereignty will not be disclosed.

  7. Interesting contribution by everyone. let me take this to the next level.

    Take the question of ‘whistleblower’ how can it be broadly defined so as to incorporate a witness protection programme that never exixts in our legal system . the question of information that can impede investigation. Who defines what information is what as it can be arbitrary.
    So within RTI there needs to be strengthening of certain fundamental elements

  8. Reply to Pabithra
    The RTI act was enacted five years ago. The act provides for voluntary disclosure of information and for compulsory cataloguing and digitisation of records under section 4(1) a and 4(1) b of the act. There is a time frame for these activities and RTI activists constantly file cases against non-implementation of these sections by various dept of Govt. before the Information commission. The independence of the commissioners is assured by their security of tenure and non-
    interference in their working..

  9. How to further strengthen RTI act?

    1. Its wonder that people who introduced the RTI act, did not consider the safety of the RTI activist. Recent past, lot of RTI activist are stabbed to death in streets; which is certainly a drawback in RTI.
    2. RTI activist information should not be revealed to anyone.
    3. A centralised system should be in place to serve RTI requests.
    4. Now RTI acts only on government funded projects. PPP projects should be brought under the RTI act to strengthen further. It may bring more transparency and accountability on spending consolidated fund of India.
    5. Respective state government should conduct RTI awareness sessions to the public and it should be included in school/college syllabus to educate next generation to bring in more Participatory Citizen-Government.

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