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--------------- Print Magazine --------------
 
  May 2016
 
  April 2016
 
 
 
 
LEGAL ARTICLE
USE OF RIGHT TO INFORMATION
FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM
Avneesh Arputham

The press, being the fourth estate, has to make the government accountable by publishing information about matters of public interest even if such information reveals abuses or crimes perpetrated by those in authority. From this perspective, investigative reporting is one of the most important contributions that the press makes to democracy and, resultantly, to the citizens. When we take into consideration the fact that most people do not exercise their right to freedom of information in a direct and personal way, the significance of investigative reporting becomes all the more important.

The Supreme Court has long recognized a citizen's access to government information as a fundamental right under Article 19, but it has only been with the passage of the RTI Act in 2005 that Indians have had a way to exercise that right and force transparency and fairness onto a notoriously corrupt bureaucracy. Evaluation of public authorities and governance is impossible without factual, current/updated and primary information.  

Bureaucrats earlier used the weapon of the Officials Secret Act, which played over the right of speech and expression. Therefore, the rights of the citizens remained confined. Similarly, the judiciary has the Contempt of Court provisions and the legislature has the parliamentary privileges. It was impossible for the journalist to go into the depth of any matter properly under these constraints. By using the RTI Act, journalists can overcome the traditional reverence of government officials and instead regard them as 'public servants' accountable to the taxpayers for how they spend government money.

Aruna Roy, a major driving force behind the implementation of the RTI Act, believes that right to information is more revolutionary than taking up a gun and fighting. According to her, five years after it became a law, the RTI Act has created unprecedented dialectics between the individuals and government officials, and has created a climate in which honest and enabled people can step out and say something in the public domain. 

The Press Council stated that the Right to Information Act is very vital for the media. It stated that "At present, one of the stumbling blocks in the path of investigative, analytical and popular journalism is the difficulty in getting access to the official information. Few journalists are able to break the iron curtain of the official non-cooperation. The Right to Information Act will encourage journalists and society at large to be more questioning about the state of affairs and promote accountability. No longer will scribes have to depend on conjecture, rumour, leaks and sources other than knowledgeable sources. Through this legislation, transparency in public, professional, social and personal sphere can be achieved."

The embezzlement in the Jharkhand Assembly Guesthouse is a very good example of how RTI can help in investigative journalism. As per the rules, the amount so obtained from the rent of the guesthouse has to be deposited in the treasury. Rs.300 was charged for a day's stay in the guesthouse, even though the rule stated that only Rs.100 is to be charged. Moreover the receipts provided for Rs.300 were false. Thus a huge amount of guesthouse rent was embezzled as a very small amount of guesthouse rent was deposited in the treasury.

In spite of the loot of public money, it was not possible to publish it as news because of the lack of evidence. Fortunately, with the help of the RTI Act, this information was sought from Vidhan Sabha. Initially they tried to avoid providing the information, but after several attempts, information was procured and the truth was revealed.

Some other interesting examples of use of RTI for investigative journalism

  • One of the major achievements of Right to Information Act was when the Delhi Government was forced to withdraw its decision of privatizing the Delhi Jal Board. In 1998, the privatization of the Delhi Jal Board was started with the help of the World Bank. Parivartan (an NGO using and spreading awareness about RTI) scrutinized the documents, which indicated a frightening truth that in order to provide the tender to the multinational company Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) the World Bank had forced the Delhi Jal Board and the Delhi Government to agree on disgraceful terms. Other concerning facts also came out. The cost of water would have risen by six times if this plan had been implemented. The water would have been provided to only those areas where people would have voluntarily agreed to lay down the pipelines at their own expense.
  • Students of the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media (IIJNM) used the RTI to establish that the public paid Rs. 11.2 lakh to send Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa on eight 'official' temple visits during the first six months of his tenure. Charging the CM's office with being 'most uncooperative' with the requests, the students said that they were shunted between different officials for 72 times by 18 officers to gather the requisite information.
  • In Madhya Pradesh, in the five districts of the State, a program to educate and provide vocational training to the child labour is running under the financial assistance of International Labour Organisation. This three-year project was started in the year 2004. A budget of thirty-two lakh rupees was alone provided to Katni district. The Right to Information Act was used by a journalist, Mohan Nagwani, for information related to the distribution of the primary health kit, the number of kits sold, the rate at which it was purchased, what equipments were there and what was their numbers, etc. After seventeen days he got the information.  It was stated that forty kits were purchased at the rate of Rs. 35,000 each. Now, Nagwani found that the medical kit cost Rs. 970 only. After this fact, the misappropriation in this project was also revealed.

Important Sections/Provisions of the RTI Act

  • Section 4 of the law requires the majority of public bodies to proactively publish information such as the name of employees, job titles, salaries, their net worth and agency expenditures. They must also catalogue all files going back 25 years, listing a description of what they contain and how they are classified.
  • Section 5 deals with the designation of Public Information Officers for the Central and State bodies.
  • . Under Section 6 , the public has the right to request additional information by contacting the agency's Public Information Officer (PIO), who in turn is bound to release the information within 30 days (as per Section 7 ). If the information relates to the life and liberty of the requester, it has to be furnished within 48 hours. There is no special form required to seek the information, and a request can be handed to the PIO on ordinary stationery.
  • Section 8 deals with information that is exempted from the purview of this Act.
  • Under Section 20 , if the official balks, or the information is deemed exempted, a requester can either file an appeal with the State's Information Commission or lodge a complaint, which if upheld can result in a fine of Rs. 250 a day, for up to 100 days. The fine provides a strong incentive for reluctant public officials to turn over the documents, rather than risk a black mark on their records or pay out of their own pockets.
  • The cost of application (Rs. 10) and for receiving the information is given in sections 3 and 4 of the RTI Rules, 2005.

How RTI can be advantageous to journalists

  • Earlier, journalists were denied a single word, but today they can have the complete file. Instead of predictions, media can write by studying the documents seriously. Earlier this was impossible. Therefore, a basic difference can be seen between the journalism before and after the arrival of Right to Information Act.
  • If an application is filed under the RTI and only partial information or even no information is received, then the information hidden can provide leads or justify the suspicions of the investigating journalist . The information, which is kept hidden, speaks in itself what kind of information is kept hidden, revealing the fact that something is wrong.
  • Since journalists can procure reliable information by using RTI, they don't have to rely solely on their personal contacts . The biggest drawback of that process was that the reporter was forced to become the puppet of such officials or 'personal contacts'. But now the news will be more impartial and objective .
  • The right to information has given birth to new and a very powerful source of information . This is not only easy to use but also reliable .
  • Due to the lack of primary and complete facts, the correspondent writes limbed, exaggerated, false and preconceived news. This is done in complete innocence. The right to information is providing this opportunity to procure all the facts and to analyze and evaluate them.  
  • In this new era of Right to Information, the readers/viewers require all kinds of primary information.  They can identify the truth on the basis of their analysis and commonsense. So, the journalist has to take this responsibility of new journalism.

Therefore the journalist and the media persons should recognize the power of right to information and should start to utilize it with full effect. This will certainly change and improve the horizon of journalism.

 
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