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Right weapon

By Sevanti Ninan

The Right to Information Act is a media tool with infinite and tremendous potential.

SPOT ON: A street play in Bangalore to create an awareness on the Act. PHOTO: V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

PERSISTENCE is not a widespread virtue in Indian journalism. When the Right to Information Act came into force last fortnight, I doubt that the "breaking news" brigade thought there was anything in it for them. But it is in fact a tool with infinite possibilities.

Maharashtra is one part of the country where individual journalists and newspapers as institutions took to it with alacrity after the Maharashtra RTI Act was passed in 2000, and improved by ordinance in 2002. Sakal and the Indian Express have deployed it and continue to do so. And Shahid Burney, editor-in-chief and publisher of Aapla Saptah, a bilingual Hindi/Marathi news weekly, published from Pune, used it before the Maharashtra elections in 2004 to force the long pending transfers of State police officers whose postings were violating Election Commission norms.

Its use in Maharashtra ...

The media can extend RTI in the public imagination in two ways. By using it themselves, and by propagating its use. The Express has done both in Maharashtra. Prakash Kardaley, senior editor, Express Initiatives, in Pune is an RTI evangelist who conducted workshops in the Express office from 2003, telling citizens how to use the newly enforced Maharashtra Right to Information Act. And in the process, created a group of activists in Pune who began using the act zealously. The word is an understatement. Shivaji Raut, a much written about school teacher in Satara, has by now reportedly deployed it 86 times, not always successfully.

Kardaley runs a weekly page called "Express Initatives" in Pune's Express Newsline, on which citizens who have used the legislation describe their experience. Since the Pune edition goes to five districts, its multiplier effect is considerable. As reporter Vinita Deshmukh puts it, "Express has chabi lagoed (egged on) citizen activists in Pune to use it." She has used it herself thrice: to get comprehensive figures on deaths of construction workers on worksites which the police pleaded inability to compile, to find out how much money was spent on the repair of five particular arterial roads in the city, and during the last Assembly elections, to find out how much all the candidates in the Pune had spent.

Sakal used the RTI to elicit from the Pune municipal corporation, names of contractors and the amount spent on road repair, then ran the figures with pictures of the roads. In Mumbai's Mid-day, Sandeep Ashar and a non-government organistion sought information of expenditure incurred on food for inmates in general police lockups and found that there was a scam going on. The Indian Express's Mumbai reporter Chitrangada Chaudhury had to use the Lokayukta to prod the Department of Women and Child Welfare to give her a report on State-run children's homes. It took from early June to late September to get it out. She says, "the persevering seems additionally painful if there are story deadlines to meet, which is why I think few journalists use it." But adds that it is useful for deeper investigations that are not ruled by immediate deadlines. The flipside in her experience, is "that you end up upsetting officials who see your using the RTI as a threat, and so stop talking to you altogether!"

... and abroad

Examples of more sophisticated uses of the RTI come from newspapers abroad. The Guardian used the act to uncover the fact that the Queen and Prince Charles received a total of more than 1million in European Union farm subsidies over two years, because major landowners receive the largest subsidies from the taxpayer. The Observer requested details of official meetings over the past two years between third parties and Lord Falconer, the minister responsible for the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. He was forced to reveal details of his ministerial diary, thereby setting a precedent. The logic was that it is important for the public to know who ministers meet and when, in particular the identities of businessmen or campaign groups lobbying for changes in policy. In the United States, the public is able to access details of all meetings between senior politicians and outside groups.

The Canadian Newspaper Association launched an audit to test how bureaucrats obey laws enshrining the public's right to know. Eighty-nine reporters from 45 newspapers across Canada visited city halls, police forces, school boards, and federal government offices to request information. Overall, officials handed over records to just one in every three requests made in person. And then there is the Detroit Free Press which used the Michigan Freedom of Information Act to expose the mayor's spending on himself, at State expense. The records took a year to come.

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