In India, deadly backlash against freedom of information activists
Activists in India have been hospitalized or even killed as they tap the 2005 freedom of information act to expose government corruption.
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According to a study published last July by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, and funded in part by the Google Foundation, in the first two-and-a-half years since RTI went into effect about 400,000 applications for information were filed from rural areas and 1.6 million from urban areas.Skip to next paragraph
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While much of the information requested ought to be public in the first place, like the size of a particular budget for a school or road, or why a particular applicant received a job or promotion, most government bureaucrats in India habitually keep such matters under lock and key.
Right to information – on paper
With the RTI Act, failure to furnish applicants their information within 30 days can result in steep fines. This week one RTI applicant was awarded 100,000 rupees, or about $2,200, by the Central Information Commission in compensation for delays.
At a meeting in the capital of the poverty-stricken northern Indian state of Bihar last November, 49 activists spoke about fighting trumped-up arrest warrants and other attempts to silence their efforts. None of the warrants have stood up under scrutiny, they claim. On Feb. 14 in Bihar, well-known RTI activist Shashidhar Mishra was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles at the entrance of his home. He had been working to expose local welfare schemes.
A month before, in the tech hub of Pune, a couple hours outside Mumbai, another activist, Satish Shetty, was killed while on his morning walk. Mr. Shetty had a record of exposing land scams in his area. Shetty had received threats on his life and requested police protection, though none was provided. The High Court in Bombay asked the state government to investigate the killing.
The upswing of violence has dire implications to Shailesh Gandhi, a commissioner with the Central Information Commission, the country’s highest authority for RTI applications.
“It tells me that the rule of law is almost absent. The truth is that powerful people feel there is no law,” Mr. Gandhi says.
Gandhi and his handful of interns, whom he pays from his own pocket, managed to go through almost 6,000 files last year. In the past 14 months he’s penalized 120 public information offices for not providing information in a timely fashion, or at all. He hopes to start cracking the whip even harder, he says. “Penalties are important.”
Last month headlines blazed across India that the New Delhi High Court ruled in favor of a RTI applicants who sought information about the office of India’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, such as his personal assets and decisions relating the appointment of lower-court judges. On Monday, the Supreme Court moved to challenge the order.
And just this last week, a disagreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the leader of the ruling National Congress Party Sonia Gandhi became public after the Mr. Singh advocated amending RTI Act, something activists strongly oppose, fearing it might be watered down.
Shailesh Gandhi agrees: "I am 100 percent convinced that any changes in the Act would be to the citizen's detriment."