20 March 2018: Prominent Right to Information (RTI) activist and youth leader of Nagaland, Poipynhun Majaw was killed in the State’s coal belt in the Jantia Hills district. His crime? Through RTI, Majaw exposed misuse of public funds by the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (JHADC) and its leniency towards more than a dozen cement companies that are allegedly operating against the interests of the local people and harming the fragile ecology of the area. The first ever RTI murder in the state, Majaw’s body was found by the roadside.
9 March 2108: Nanjibhai Sondarva (35) a resident of Manekwada village in Kotada Sangani taluka of Rajkot district was allegedly clubbed to death by six persons. His crime? He had filed an RTI application demanding transparency about funds spent on the construction of a road in his village. One and a half years back, he and other members of his family were allegedly assaulted by the village sarpanch who was said to be furious at Nanjibhai for using RTI to expose financial irregularities in the developmental works undertaken in the village.
States Venkatesh Nayak, RTI research scholar and coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), “With this latest incident, the total number of victims, allegedly murdered for seeking information under RTI, across the country has gone up to 67. Also, with the Rajkot incident, the number of citizens and activists who used RTI to question the "Gujarat Model of Development" has risen to 11. There are at least 16 cases of assault on other RTI activists in Gujarat reported in various media sources since October, 2005 when the RTI Act was operationalised.”
With the Whistleblower’s Act diluted and weakened even before its implementation, the safety of RTI activists who seek information for the larger common good, is increasingly in danger. Says Vijay Kumbhar, noted RTI activist, “I am afraid the number of such assaults and killings is likely to increase considering that the government is increasingly going in for the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model, where transparency is more an exception than a rule. Hence, the stakeholders like contract labourers and agents are likely to demand information under RTI if they perceive injustice making them vulnerable to goonda like elements. Also, the killings continue because neither the public authorities of the state nor the Central government are interested in making RTI citizen-empowered as they have shown their disdain for proactive disclosures under Section 4 (d) of the RTI Act.”
A couple of years back, The Asian Centre for Human Rights had recommended that a separate chapter, “Protection of those seeking information under the (RTI) Act” be inserted into the Act. The protection measures included in the proposal were:
(a)mandatory, immediate registration of complaints of threats or attacks against RTI activists on the First Information Report and placing such FIRs before the magistrate or judge of the area within 24 hours for issuance of directions for protection of those under threats and their family members, and periodic review of such protection measures;
(b)conducting inquiry into threats or attacks by a police officer not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police/Assistant Commissioner of Police, to be concluded within 90 days; and
(c) trial of the accused within six months
(d) Changes should be made in the present RTI Act which should ensure the anonymity of the applicant, this can be achieved by removing the compulsory mention of the name and address of the applicant. And the Information should be posted on the official website. Now, most of the information, which results in a threat to the life of a whistleblower have no security concern. For example, all the Information related to MNREGA, if made public, is not going to result in a threat to privacy or security of the nation or anyone, But we have seen murders of various RTI activist seeking Information related to MNREGA.
The CHRI has posted the following on its website as tips to prevent attacks:
Often, there is strength and solidarity in numbers. Nothing in The Right to Information Act, 2005 says citizens cannot request information jointly. Recognising the increasing number of cases of attacks on RTI users, the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruled in 2012 that citizens may file joint RTI applications on any subject. So an individual may send an RTI application in her/his name and those of friends or relatives. All applicants should put their names and signatures at the bottom of the RTI form. However, applicants need to remember to indicate which of them will be responsible for paying the copying fees for the records requested from the public authority. (Similarly, nothing in the RTI Act prevents several citizens from seeking the same information from the same public authority through several RTI applications.)
The Calcutta High Court also showed its concern for citizens who are attacked for asking information from public authorities. In 2013 the High Court ruled that a citizen should not be compelled to give personal contact details in the RTI application. If the information can be delivered to any Post Box No. provided by the RTI applicant, the public authority must send it there. So an applicant may ask for information to be delivered to her/his Post Box to prevent vested interests from knowing where she/he lives. However if the information sought is bulky, or if applicants want the information delivered by Registered Post or Speed Post, they will have to disclose personal contact details. Recorded mail cannot be delivered to a Post Box No. because the applicant has to sign a receipt on delivery.
The RTI Act recognises citizens’ right to seek information electronically. An applicant may file an RTI application through email also. If the information is held by the public authority in electronic form, she/he may ask for it to be sent through email. In such cases it may not be necessary to reveal her/his postal address to the public authority.
If an applicant thinks that her/his potential RTI application may result in an attack on her/him, play it safe. Talk to a journalist or a social activist or a civil society organisation to seek the information from the public authority. Vested interests may then have second thoughts about attacking them.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005, and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book, “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte”, with Vinita Kamte, and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”