Right to Information

Is Media Playing its Role?

Vishnu Rajgadia
Coordinating Editor, Prabhat Khabar, Dhanbad & Deoghar

(Convener, Jharkhand RTI Forum)

 The Indian Press Council formed a committee on 2nd June 1998. The purpose was to assess the future of the Print Media. A questionnaire of twenty-four questions was prepared to solicit the opinion from the concerned people across the country. The second question was itself, how will the Right to Information legislation help in discharging the professional duties of the Journalists?

             The Press Council on March 2001, had stated that the Right to Information Legislation as 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. The bureaucracy, the police the army, judiciary and even the legislature guard information regarding even the most mundane subjects with astonishing zeal. Few journalists are able to break this iron curtain of the official non-cooperation. The right to Information will encourage journalists and society at large to be more questioning about the state of affairs and will be powerful tool to check the unmitigated goings-on in the public realm and will also promoter accountability. No longer will scribes have to depend on conjecture, rumour, leaks and sources other than knowledgeable sources. The legislation when enacted will pose an antidote to vested interests which try to conceal or misinterpret information or which try to manipulate media directly or indirectly to plant misinformation. Through this legislation, transparency in public, professional, social and personal sphere can be achieved.”

             It is really surprising that such an accurate evaluation by the Press Council was not give any importance by most of the media. The media could not even find time to welcome the implementation of the Information Act officially. This was just believed to be the matters related to the farmers of Rajasthan and of the people of the slums of Delhi or thought as the matter related to the NGO type people. Its use was far away from question. It was completely ignored by the media. While, on the other hand few people who used it as a weapon in journalism had an interesting experience and showed new path as well.

             Under section 19(1) (a) of the Indian constitution, the citizens of India have been given the right to freedom of speech and expression. But without access to information, this right was incomplete. Evaluation of the public authorities and the governance is impossible without factual, current/updated and primary information.  The public authorities always kept guard on each information. The tragedy was that the bureaucrats were having the weapon of Officials Secret Act, which played over the right of speech and expression, and the some constraints laid down by the constitution. 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.

             Now, with the legislation of the Right to Information, it has become a tremendous weapon for the common people and the media as well. Let us see an example, how media can use the Information Act?

I was denied for a single word, today I have the complete file

The president of the Hindu Religious Trust Board, Rajendra Nath Shadeo through an unconstitutional judgment converted a property worth rupees ten crores into private property. This property of Manorma trust included the land of Bhawan Bigha of Deoghar and two big houses at Kolkata. The owner of this property had converted it into Manorma Trust in 1968. His son filed case and appealed for conversion of the trust property into private property before the Patna and Kolkata High Court. But the court denied hearing the case on the ground that the matter pertains to the civil concern; therefore this case can be heard in civil court. The court also suggested the appellant; they could also file application under Article 43 of the Hindu Religious Trust Board Act for hearing into this matter. As per the article 43, it suggests that if any dispute pertains to the trust property, then the state government can appoint a competent authority for hearing. According to the act, the government with notification could appoint such authority and the person should be either from administrative services or from legal services. But the board president violating the provisions of the Act declared himself as the Judge and converted the entire property into private property in his own court.

The entire process was unconstitutional. The District Commissioner of Deoghar gave a written objection. Even the department of law declared it as unconstitutional. But despite all this the property was distributed. The matter was brought up to the cabinet where the law department was asked to make inquiry. But the people of Jharkhand are still waiting for the report or any action in this unconstitutional decision.

As a journalist of Prabhat Khabar, I was interested to know the facts. I asked from the officials of the Law Department for information regarding the enquiry of Manorma Trust. But in spite of my several attempts, I was unable to get a single word. At last, I visited to the Law Department and managed to send my visiting card to the Law Secretary, Mr. Rambilas Gupta. He as well known that I am interested in Manorma Trust case. Therefore, he was very much apathetic towards me. He did not even offer me a chair before him. I was standing in front of him and he was engaged in his files. He never saw towards me and told only few word- “Manorma Trust, I don’t know, what is the matter. We have not received and order for such inquiry.”

It was evident that he was lying. But a journalist like me was even helpless in such a situation earlier. But thanks to RTI, I filed a request for Information under this act, on 29th December 2005. On 7th January 2006, the Law department informed in written that the report was with the Law minister; as soon as it reaches their office it will be provided.

On 27.03.2006 this matter was brought to the notice of the Chief Information Commissioner of the Center, Wazahhat Habibullah during the CHRI workshop. He told that the reply of the Law department was not justified and cleared that if the report was with the Law minister, it meant that the information was within the office itself because the minister is himself the part of the department.

After obtaining facts from other sources news was published in two episodes in Prabhat Khabar on 30th and 31st January 2006 respectively.

Fortunately, the SIC was formed. I made an appeal regarding my request for information. This was a dramatic move. The Law Department called of the file from the table of the Law Minister (Chief Minister) and was provided to me. Earlier, I was denied for a single word and now I have obtained the complete file.

Facts obtained from the file were bewildering. The State Cabinet had ordered to the Law Department for inquiry. But the department sends it to the Deputy Commissioner of Deoghar. The DC also did not bother to look into the matter. He handed it to the ADM. He also took a safe path and sent it to the Circle Officer. This fellow also followed the same path and handed the work of inquiry to the HALKA – KARMACHARY (Land related third grade employee). This poor fellow arranged some papers related to the Manorma Trust and sent it to Circle officer. These papers were forwarded to ADM, then DC and finally to the Law Department. The department for “Law” was less interested in the issues related to “Law” and forwarded the report to the Law Minister. This example states the pathetic condition of Law in the state. These facts were exposed only due to RTI.

 The right to information has a unique quality, if we file an application under it and receives partial or full information or even no information, each case provides interesting facts. The information, which is kept hidden, speaks in itself what kind of information is kept hidden, revealing the fact that something is wrong. In case of the Law Department, doubt arises as they have tried to keep the report of the Jharkhand Hindu Religion Justice Board.

Due to illegal production and sale of the local alcohol, Jharkhand had to suffer a loss of millions in just two years on the production and sales tax. Surprisingly, the officials were quite on this issue. When a member of Jharkhand Assembly, Mr. Vinod Singh raised question on this issue in the Vidhan Sabha, misleading and false information was provided on the floor of the house. Whenever media publicized such report, it was stated to be incorrect and malicious. The information kept under guard was not provided to the finance minister of the state even on his request.

Meanwhile, Dayanand Roy of Prabhat Khabar Institute of Media Studies filed RTI application and got the matter exposed. It was revealed that the revenue collected in 2001-02 was Rs.16 crores that went down by ten times in the next years. This became exclusive news for page one of Prabhat Khabar. 

Wide Scope of RTI

            The government was forced to withdraw its decision of privatizing the Delhi Jal Board. This is one of the major achievements of Right to Information. This episode has cleared as to how the government bent before the World Bank to fulfill the interests of the multinational companies. The workers of Right to Information evaluated the documents containing more than four thousand pages carefully and exposed a frightening truth. This is an example for the media to learn and understand it. The media may hardly have its own such example. 

            In 1998, secretly the privatization of the Delhi Jal Board was started with the help of the World Bank. The Parivartan’s team scrutinized the documents, which contained more than four thousand pages, carefully. The facts indicated a frightening truth. It was revealed 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.  

            This example states that instead of predictions, media can write by studying the documents seriously. Earlier it was impossible. Therefore, a basic difference can be seen between the journalism before and after the arrival of Right to Information. This difference can be clearly understood by understanding the differences between the provisions of the Official Secrets Act and the Right to Information.  The Official Secret Act can make most of the information secret, while the RTI act discloses almost all the information. 

 The right to Information has enabled a new kind of journalism. Its examples can be heard in different parts of the world.

The Guardian published a report that after Second World War, Britain had made a secret jail in Germany for two years. This information was possible by the use of Right to Information. The Nazi’s were tortured mercilessly. This information was procured from one of the file of the foreign department of Britain, which was prepared by Tom Havard, inspector of Scotland Police.  

The Indian Express revealed the truth of the promises made in the rail budget. This was also exposed through the help of RTI. According to the reports published on 25th February 2006 by Ritu Sarin, around forty seven crores plan is still pending which was announced earlier.  

 The experience of Prabhat Khabar team is quite interesting in this regard. The manifestation of embezzlement in the Jharkhand Assembly Guesthouse has become famous. Vidhan Sabha has thirty air-conditioned rooms. The guest coming to stay here has to pay rent as per the laid down norms. As per the provisions the amount so obtained from the rent of the guesthouse has to be deposited in the treasury. Since a very long period this matter was under discussion among the political, administrative and media people. According to them there were two rates were charged for staying in the guesthouse which was completely against the provisions. As per one of the rule Rs.300/- was charged for a day’s stay in the guesthouse. This was completely illegal because as per the provisions only Rs.100/- is supposed to be charged. More over the receipt provided for the Rs.300/- were completely false. Thus a huge amount of guesthouse rent was embezzled. A very small amount of guesthouse rent was deposited in the treasury. In spite of the loot of the public money, it was not possible to publish it as news because of the lack of the evidence. More over parliamentary privileges naturally forced not to publish such news without any documental evidence. For making this news it was necessary to know the amount deposited in the treasury as guesthouse rent. Despite several inquiries, Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha did not provide this information. Several visits were made to the treasury office, but even there saying that this is a very confidential matter and this cannot be disclosed without the permission of the DC did not provide the information.  

Fortunately the right to information arrived during the same time. With the help of this information was sought from Vidhan Sabha. Initially they tried to avoid providing the information. After several attempts information was procured and the entire scene was clear. The truth was revealed. It was clear from the layman’s view itself that the amount deposited from 2002 to October 2005 in the treasury was very less. From March 2004 in almost twenty-one months only Rs. 32,800 was deposited in the treasury. The low collection in twenty-one months at the rate of Rs.300 per day clearly stated the entire fact. With this the collection of two types of rent from the guesthouse was also revealed. Large news was published on 09.12.2005 in Prabhat Khabar revealing all the facts regarding this. Without refuting a word, Vidhan Sabha accepted that embezzlement has occurred. It was impossible to publish a word on this serious report unless right to information would not have arrived on right time. Only this example is not sufficient to understand the new journalism.  

Many irregularities are seen in the Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha in appointments and promotion cases. Media relates it with the parliamentary privileges of the legislature, while they believe it to be the authority of the speaker. The common people, the power of the new democracy did not keep quite and nor they sat idle. Demonstrations were organized on roads and PIL was filed in the court. The court gave insulting remark to the Jharkhand legislature and immediately issued order to stop the examination. In spite of all these nothing bothered Vidhan Sabha. Yes, this is the true description of the temple of our democracy. People who were removed from the Bihar Vidhan Sabha by the courts order were appointed through backdoor. The Jharkhand High Court also ordered for their removal. More than thousand unemployed youths applied for the post of Assistant, while only fifty two applicants were issued admit card and even the examination was tried conduct the examination secretly. Thousands of youth came demonstrating. Meanwhile the court ordered to stop the examination. Despite all these seventy-five forth grade employee were appointed in October 2005, out of which thirty-six appointees were from Palamu district only, the constituency area of the speaker of Jharkhand Assembly. Even the rest of the appointment lacked transparency.

I tried to seek information through RTI application, but information was not disclosed. When procuring information from other sources published news on this, the speaker announced immediately on 29th November that all the information must be provided. He said that secrecy leads to misunderstanding.

Many cases of irregularities in the promotion of officials and employees in Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha have also been exposed through the RTI. Shakti Pandey, reporter of Prabhat Khabar had requested for information regarding promotions in March 2006. He was denied for the information. After the intervention of the State Information Commission, he got the information. It was surprising to know that some officials got promotion twice a day and thrice in only five months. The service rules of Assembly clearly say that any promotion could be given after TWO YEARS. But the temple of democracy was seemed to be offering wrong prayers. 23 persons were promoted during August 2004 to June 2006, and many of them got three-time promotion. Around fifty employee of forth grade were promoted a clerk just within six months of their appointment. Some sweepers were also promoted as cashier or clerk. Clearly, we can expect big news from such information.

Similarly, various departments are distributing costly gifts to the legislatures, officials and journalists during assembly session. Most of the gifts are illegal, as there is no provision for such gifts in budget. These are managed from the contractors and distributors to various departments as a OPEN BRIBE. This was only the Late MLA of CPI-ML Mahendra Singh, who never took the gift. Now his son Vinod Singh has continued the same tradition. All others are always worried for such bribery as gift.

On 28.0.2006, Mr. Shakti Pandey from Prabhat Khabar applied for information regarding such gifts. He was denied. After intervention of SIC, the assembly got engaged in colleting the information to be provided.

 Another similar type of information was sought Shakti Pandey, through Right to Information about the allotment of canteens and shops in the premises of Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha, the amount of token money taken by the owners and the monthly rent collected from them. For the assembly secretariat providing these information seemed to be a gigantic task. Initially all the attempts were made to deny the information. The officials were reluctant not to provide the information. After the intervention of the SIC, he got the information. It was revealed that related procedure was not followed in the allotment of shops and not a single penny was collected as rent or advance since last five years.  

More examples from Jharkhand.

It is compulsory to provide the name and address of the NGO with the other document with the application for registration. But, after the formation of Jharkhand 160 were registered without their permanent address. There were also few registered NGOs, which had mentioned only the district to which they belong without mentioning their permanent address. These irregularities were revealed when Kumari Sarita, a student of Prabhat Khabar Institute of Media Studies demanded the details of all the registered NGOs of the state. After properly scrutinizing the information, Sanjay, reporter of Prabhat Khabar revealed the misappropriation. Understandingly this information became important news.  

Similarly, Sunil Chowdhary asked for the information related to the purchase of ambulance on large scale for the distribution it among the NGOs by the Health Department. The information procured revealed that most of the ambulances were used to purchase vegetables and for moving around. After publication of the news related to this, the government immediately ordered for strict vigilance of this kind of vehicle (December, 2005). 

In another case, Sunil Chowdhary had demanded for the information related to the procurement of the land for the installation fifty-two proposed Electricity Sub Stations. It was revealed that for eighteen Sub-stations land was not available, and their installation was far from reality. 

Neha Gupta filed an RTI application on 09.12.05 in the Land Reforms & Revenue Department for seeking information related to the grabbed land of the tribes. She had to face many problems to procure the information. Going through the details of the information procured, it was revealed that there were lots of delays caused in the clearance of the cases of the grabbed land and returning of the land to the tribes. It also cleared that maximum cases were pertained to Ranchi. The payment as compensation for the grabbed land was not completely done. The entire facts procured became the source for news.  

During elections the private vehicles are forfeited for the government use. The administration notes down their numbers. It is not possible for the vehicle owners to take out their vehicles without permission. Therefore to keep these vehicles it is not at all necessary to have a ‘Jail’. It can easily be kept in an open field. For convenience, bamboo boundary is created. But, is the work of fencing so costly that the State government like Jharkhand has to spend two-three crores?

 This suspense was cleared by the RTI application filed by Shakti Pandey. He sought about the details of the amount spent for barricading Morhabadi Ground for parking the vehicles during the Parliamentary elections of 2004 and Assembly elections, 2005. The details procured provide a surprising fact. During the Parliamentary elections, the cost for the barricading was just one lakh rupees, while during the Assembly elections this cost went up three times. What happened in just ten months that the cost for the same barricading area went up by three times? Interestingly for barricading 2124 vehicles, one lakh was spent whereas for barricading just half the number of vehicles (1333) the cost went up by three times i.e. three lakh rupees. This evidence became the source for ‘exclusive news’ for Prabhat Khabar. Now, any journalist can obtain further information related to this issue on different perspective through right to information and publish important news related to it. The complete details of the expenditure of one and three lakh rupees, the information related to the process of this work can be really very important. It can be found out about the amount spent on the same work by different constituencies of the state. If any misappropriation is found then it can be highlighted in the interest of the state.  If three lakh is spent in one constituency area then it would cost around two to three crores for 81 constituencies. Let us take another example where right to information can help to study news deeply.

 The backdoors entry was always heard about the Jharkhand Academic council. But, it was difficult to obtain the list and factual information regarding such appointments, which could provide solid base to it. During the same period with the implementation of right to information took place. Sunil Mahto filed an application for seeking information related to the list of applicants, date of appointment, the advertisement of the post etc. Though incomplete information was only provided, but it clearly indicated many things. Like the absence of the advertisement number cleared that there was no such advertisement published. There were sixty-five employees whose appointment dates were not mentioned while the rest of the employee’s date of appointment was clearly mentioned. Are these those people who have been illegally appointed? A reporter gets a solid reason for serious investigation of every aspect in this regard. It depends on the reporter’s ability as to how deeply he studies the matter and how much patience he keeps.

Similar application was submitted in Birsa Agriculture University. The application filed by Sunil Mahto on 15th October, 2005 sought for the information related to the number of the posts approved, process of appointment, name of the officials and workers with their designation, date of their appointment, date of the advertisement related to the post etc. After procuring this information, it could have been possible to reveal the amount of corruption in appointments in recent days. The news related to this was also published in the newspaper. But since the university did not provide the information, it could not be completely exposed. We must hope that in the process of proper implementation of right to information, all these kind of information are provided. For media it would become easy to publish news after getting a solid proof for their news.

 The experiences of other newspaper are also encouraging. One of the reporter, Amerender Kumar of the Hindi daily of Ranchi, Hindustan, sought for the information related to the details of the expenses done on the ex-chief minister, ministers and their personal secretaries. Initially the information was denied. But after one month big news was published in the front page with the heading ‘Soochna Ka Kaisa Adhikar Laagu Hai Jharkhand Mein!’ meaning what kind of right to information is implemented in Jharkhand. It was exposed in the news that they were not provided with the information about the amount of money spent on he ex-chief minister, amount of TA drawn by the ministers, the amount spent by the ministers on medical expenses, amount of money taken by the personal secretaries for TA. Which personal secretaries have traveled by air etc? After this the news was published, many reactions arrived and immediately such information was provided. The facts procured from this information enabled to publish big news.

 One example from Madhya Pradesh. In the five district of the state, a program to educate and provide vocational training to the child labour is running under the financial assistance of International Labour Organisation. This three-year project was started in the year 2004. A budget of thirty-two lakh rupees was alone provided to Katni district. But, misappropriation report had arrived. One of the right to information worker, Mohan Nagwani demanded for the information related to the distribution of the primary health kit. Like the number of kit, at what rate it was purchased, what equipments are there and what is their numbers etc. After seventeen days he got the information.  It revealed that forty kits were purchased at the rate of Thirty five thousand each. Now, Nagmani tried to found the cost of the best possible set in the market, he found that the possible set cost just RS. 970/- only. After this fact was revealed, the misappropriation in this project was also revealed. Encouraged with this, another right to information worker, Dr. Rakesh Ranjan went with one of the reporter of Dainik Jagran and inspected the primary health kit at ten centres. In three centers there were no equipments available in the health kit whereas in remaining seven centres the materials of the kit were substandard. Naturally this issue became the matter of discussion in the local newspaper. It was made possible only due to right to information to study the matter so deeply and reveal the truth. The right to information has become the tool for the journalist to the expose the people who tried to snatch the bite of food from the mouth of the poor children.

 The application of Mritunjay is still pending in Jharkhand Electricity Board in which he demanded for the information related to the invitation of tenders for the internal accounting and later the appointed accountants and the set rate of it. The information related to the description of the purchase of mosquito nets and vehicles, total description of the purchased ambulances, details of the organizations to whom the ambulance were distributed, their list and the utility report, the copy of the order for the computerization, details of the amount paid and with the progress report of the work also the information related to the amount of fund procured and spent on the training of the doctor’s of XIET, Gamharia was sought. The information regarding the basis for the allotment of the mining belts of Bokana mine to three companies is not yet provided to Deepak. The delay and the denial of the officials to provide the information on such application strengthen the predictions on the basis of which these applications were filed.  

The people who are suggesting that news cannot be procured through right to information and only through good relation. They are actually trying to remove the difference between public relation and journalism. One of the common definitions of ‘NEWS’ is something, which is tried to keep hidden, is news and rest is advertisement. This definition is even clearer now with the arrival of right to information. The news of the cabinet is either procured by individual relationship or due the existing differences the news is sponsored. Knowing, unknowingly the correspondent becomes the tool of this or that side. Most of the times 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. Analyze and evaluate the facts obtained through his common sense. The complete analysis of the all the facts of Delhi Jal Board has also shown way to the media. 

            The procurement of news through good relationship is a normal process. The biggest drawback of this process is that the reporter is forced to become the puppet of these officials. The officials also entertain and welcome the reporters till he does the reporting of public relation. But, as soon as the officials realize that the reporter is trying to seek that information which would reveal their corruption of some misappropriation in the department, the very same moment they start avoiding the reporter. After this they will not even remember you. It would become difficult for him to procure the routine news of his beat if he tries to bring adverse news. The right to information has broken this shackle. It is possible to obtain the routine news through personal relation whereas through right to information, facts for the exclusive news can be procured.  

            This problem is also associated with the news left out due to the competition existing between the newspapers.  Today hardly any reporter will afford to risk, even simple news related to his beat misses out. This has also changed the source scale of the news. Now for the reporters, the officials, which would become are also their chief source. Meaning the officials or the ministers who would become the news they are the chief source of the news. For keeping the sources alive and in their side, the reporters many times have to change the scale of the news. What would remain for the journalist, if the top officials of every department themselves becomes the chief source? Then there would be hardly any scope, except for becoming the public relation office as a social worker for that office. 

            The right to information has given birth to new and a very powerful source of information. This is not only easy to use but also reliable, but only when the government does not react adversely, which is presently seen in Jharkhand and Bihar state.

             In the new era of Right to Information, the citizen’s readers of the newspaper require all kinds of primary information.  They can identify the truth by 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. The right to information workers has revealed the misappropriation of the welfare fund for the child laborers in Madhya Pradesh. These workers provided exclusive news to the journalist. 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 the horizon of journalism. 

 (Vishnu Rajgadia, Co-ordinating Editor, Prabhat Khabar, Dhanbad and Deoghar Edition, Convener,  Jharkhand RTI Forum)