Right to Information: Concern grows over proposed changes to law

As government tries to amend act which allows citizens to seek official data, RTI hailed as ‘one of the best laws’.

RTI activist India
Poipynhun Majaw was an RTI activist. His friends say he was killed because he sought sensitive information [Image from Poipynhun Majaw's Facebook account]

The lifeless body of 38-year-old Poipynhun Majaw was found on March 28 near a bridge in Khliehriat, in the small Indian hilly state of Meghalaya.

State police said unknown assailants killed him with a heavy iron object, possibly a wrench, which was found at the scene.

Majaw was a Right to Information (RTI) activist.

Using the RTI Act, which is similar to the US’ Freedom of Information Act, he had exposed local corruption involving the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council and cement companies, which were mining without council permission.

Activists say Majaw was killed because he was attempting to shine a light on the murky relationship between government and business.

Fellow campaigner Agnes Kharshiing, in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, says he had “wanted to do something good for his people”.

Local media reported police as saying the leads they have received into Majaw’s death received were inconclusive.

“He really tried hard, his death shook us all,” says Kharshiing. “We all know he was killed.”

This is a way to control the information commissioners who control the information flow. We need to fight this. This is one of the best laws we have, any amendments will weaken it.

by Shailesh Gandhi, former Information Commissioner

RTI is aimed at helping India’s citizen watchdogs.

Almost 2,000km away in New Delhi, the Indian capital, a draft bill seeks to amend the landmark act, which was signed into law in 2005.

Activists say the government is aiming to throttle the act, which enables all citizens to access information held by public authorities, improving accountability and transparency.

Circulated in July, the bill seeks to weaken the autonomy of the bodies, known as the Information Commissions, that oversee implementation of the law.

The government has told MPs it wants to amend the current law so it can decide the tenure, salaries and other allowances of Information Commissions officials – the final adjudicators on information requests.

“This is a way to control the information commissioners who control the information flow. We need to fight this. This is one of the best laws we have, any amendments will weaken it,” Shailesh Gandhi, a former Information Commissioner tells Al Jazeera.

“With these proposed changes, they could keep extending tenures of those officials who are amenable to the government of the day. The truth is that a great number of these officials anyway toe the government line. Some break away and dispense information dispassionately. These new amendments can be a way to control such officials. This is likely going to lead to other amendments,” he added.

Radha Krishna Mathur, Chief Information Commissioner in New Delhi, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for comment by the time of publishing.

Dozens killed seeking information

An estimated five to eight million RTI applications are filed every year.

At least 21.4 million RTI applications were filed across the country between 2005 and 2017, according to data filed by some Information Commissions. The total number is expected to be higher.

Some sought information about welfare and social schemes for the poor and examine land records. Others were aimed at exposing the exploitation of natural resources by local criminal gangs and political figures.

More than 70 RTI users have been killed since the act was signed into law 18 years ago, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

In the same period, there have been at least 300 assaults and 179 cases of harassment relating to the act, the organisation said.

Activists trying to expose sour government deals – from illegal sand mining and alleged tampering of electronic voting machines, to corruption in local government – are among those who have been targeted.

“Most of these people [who have been killed were] based in small towns and villages. They were trying to expose wrongdoing by authorities and local goons and they suffered for it,” Venkatesh Nayak at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an international NGO that tracks RTI implementation, tells Al Jazeera.

I find hope in the fact that village people here in the remote hills use RTI to find out about their rights. We will carry on, undeterred by threats.

by Agnes Kharshiing, RTI activist

It is not clear when the government will table the bill, but those planning to use the transparency tool already face a difficult time ahead, say activists.

More than 25 percent of 146 posts in the Information Commissions are vacant. On July 27, the government’s Department of Personnel and Training announced in an advert that the salaries and tenure of RTI Information Commissioners “will be specified at time of appointment”.

This move was interpreted as the government pre-empting the amendment, by interfering in details the that current law does not allow it to manage.

“They are trying to widen the ambit of what information should not be given out. In the last two or three years, there has been a dip in the number of RTI applications filed because the government, courts and commissioners have in tandem said they do not wish to give out information in many cases,” says former commissioner Gandhi.

In recent weeks, activists across India have protested against the proposals.

Opposition parties have demanded that the bill should not be tabled in parliament in its current form.

But the government has enough power in the lower house of parliament to push through the bill.

‘RTI users are branded as blackmailers’

Filing an RTI is easy: citizens put in their information requests to a state office. The federal law mandates the office to respond in 30 days.

But activists say that currently, some responses are not being sent within 30 days, if at all.

“Everybody in power dislikes transparency. In many parts, RTI users are branded as blackmailers and extortionists – this needs to stop,” says former commissioner Gandhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept into power in May 2014, vowing to tackle corruption.

His battle against corruption has included limiting cash donations to political funding, new “election bonds”, and a shock move to ban high-value currency in 2016.

But critics have questioned the impact of these measures.

In 2017, Transparency International ranked India 81 of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index. New Zealand was ranked first and Somalia last.

Back in remote Meghalaya, fellow campaigners remember Majaw as a warrior for the RTI Act.

They have urged authorities to find and punish his killers and demanded protection for themselves, but claim they feel abandoned and at risk.

“I find hope in the fact that village people here in the remote hills use RTI to find out about their rights,” says activist Kharshiing. “We will carry on, undeterred by threats.”

Source: Al Jazeera