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Use of Right to Information for Investigative Journalism

BY: Avneesh Arputham | Category: Issues | Submitted: 2010-07-04 23:16:52
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Article Summary: "The article focuses on how the Right to Information Act (RTI) can be used for investigative purposes by journalists. It elucidates the main feature of the Act and also gives the advantages it provides to journalists over their earlier techniques..."


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The press, being the forth 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 the 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 have 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. 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 the evidence. Moreover, parliamentary privileges forced the newspaper not to publish such news without any documental evidence. For making this information public, it was necessary to know the amount deposited in the treasury as guesthouse rent. Despite several inquiries, the Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha did not provide this information.

Fortunately, with the help of the RTI Act, this information was sought from Vidhan Sabha. It was clear that the amount deposited from 2002 to October 2005 in the treasury was minimal. In almost twenty-one months, only Rs. 32,800 was deposited in the treasury, that also when they had 30 rooms in the guesthouse. Thus, without the use of the RTI Act, it was impossible to publish a word on this serious issue.

Some other interesting examples of use of RTI for investigative journalism are:


• 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 the water would have risen by six times if this plan has been implemented. The water would have been provided to only those areas were people would voluntarily agree 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, students said that they were shunted between different officials for 72 times by 18 officers to gather the requisite information.

• In five districts of Madhya Pradesh, a program to educate and provide vocational training to the child labour is running under the financial assistance of International Labour Organisation. 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 the information related to the distribution of the primary health kit, the number of kits sold, the rate at which it was purchased, what equipments are there and what is 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 Section 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 this process is that the reporter is forced to become the puppet of these officials or 'personal contacts'. This will make news more impartial and objective. It is also possible to obtain the routine news through personal relations whereas through right to information, facts for the exclusive news can be procured.

• 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. The possibility of transparency, which have been obtained through right to information, to make it a reality the media, will have to assemble them with honesty. If the journalist does not take this responsibility of new journalism, then this will be done through the strength of the new democracy.

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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Comments on this article: (2 comments so far)

Comment Comment By Comment Date
Excellent article .. Just the information I was looking for. Preetam Sinha 2010-07-04 23:38:17 209
I am a B. A. (Hons.) Journalism Student too. The article is superb! Aishani Gupta 2010-11-21 00:51:49 430

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