RTI For Journalists

The Right to Information Act 2005, is a revision of the Freedom of Information Act 2002. It is based on the premise that in a democracy, the citizens have the right to be informed about decisions that concern them, and the Supreme Court of India has recognised this as a Fundamental Right under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.

However, there are some circumstances for the withholding of information:

-  Its disclosure would undermine the sovereignty and integrity of the Indian nation; the security, scientific or the economic interest of the state; the state’s friendly relationships with foreign states; or would incite offence

-  Its publication has been forbidden by the courts and would amount to contempt of court.

- Its disclosure would breach the privilege of parliament.

- It pertains to trade, secrets or intellectual property and its disclosure would harm the financial interests of those to whom it relates

- Its disclosure would endanger a person’s life or safety or is a breach of confidentiality rights.

- Its disclosure would impede judicial procedures

- Its disclosure would infringe a person’s copyright

If an application is rejected for any of the above reasons, the applicant would be informed of the same. This provision is called ‘severability’ and that information would be acknowledged as such and that information regarding the applicant’s right to appeal the decision of non-disclosure would be provided.

Under Section 4 of the Act, all public bodies are required to disclose information pertaining to their functioning; their employees, officials, and encourages that such information be made public through the media like newspapers, the Internet, hoardings, and broadcasts.

Sources: Media Ethics by ParanjoyGuhaThakurta

How To File an RTI?

First and foremost, you need to identify the department from which you solicit information, and under which government’s jurisdiction does the department fall –Municipal/Panchayat, State or Centre.

As of now, not all states allow you to file an application online. You can only download the form from their website. But the Central government allows for the online submission of RTIs.

Filing an RTI offline is fairly cumbersome, whereas doing it online is a relatively convenient process, and if you don’t know which department to address your RTI to, you can look for the department in the search bar in the form itself. The fee for submitting an RTI is Rs. 10, which you can pay through net banking, or debit/credit card.

You will get an SMS and E-mail containing a unique code for your RTI plea and an acknowledgement after it is successfully submitted. You can also track the status of your RTI online.

Why RTI?

The RTI act was formulated to facilitate smooth access to information for all citizens.

While it can prove to be the biggest tool in the hands of the citizenry to keep the government bodies accountable to them, it has immense potential for media practioners. They may take this provision to engage in activities that propagate the right to information and guard against corruption. However, their “good faith”- which could perhaps be understood as public interest- could be difficult to prove.

Any activity undertaken in good faith in adherence to this Act shall be protected from prosecution or penalty.

Earlier there were a lot of impediments to the working of a free press in India. It is not like all of them have ceased to exist, but the coming of RTI has definitely removed many obstacles.

The Official Secrets Act was long used as a shield by the bureaucrats, and the legislature and judiciary had Parliamentary Privilege and Contempt of Court Act respectively.

It was therefore, impossible for the journalist to go into the depth of any matter properly under these constraints. By using the RTI Act, journalists found a new tool of empowerment.

The Press Council has stated that the Right to Information Act is vital for the media. It stated, "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. Few journalists are able to break the iron curtain of the official non-cooperation. The Right to Information Act will encourage journalists and society at large to be more questioning about the state of affairs and promote accountability. No longer will scribes have to depend on conjecture, rumour, leaks and sources other than knowledgeable sources. Through this legislation, transparency in public, professional, social and personal sphere can be achieved."

How RTI made a difference:

According to a study conducted by The Hoot, Indian Express is most likely to use RTI than any other newspaper.

The students of Prabhat Khabar Institute of Media Studies (PKIMS) exposed many irregularities and instances of corruption in Jharkhand through RTI. The embezzlement in the Jharkhand Assembly Guesthouse is a very good example of how RTI can help in investigative journalism. The per day charge of the Guesthouse which was collected from ex-MLAs, MPs was Rs. 100, but others were charged Rs. 300. As per the rules, the amount so obtained from the rent of the guesthouse has to be deposited in the treasury, but a huge amount of guesthouse rent was embezzled as a very small amount was actually deposited in the treasury. Moreover the receipts provided for Rs.300 were false.

In 2009, students of the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bangalore, did an investigative story on the misuse of public funds by then CM of Karnataka, B.S Yeddyurappa. The entire premise of the story was built around the RTI filed by them, which revealed that the CM had used 11 lakhs from the taxpayer’s money to visit 8 temples during the first 6 months of his tenure. However, it wasn’t easy to get hold of this information. The students revealed that they were shunted between different officials 72 times by 18 officers to get the required information.

Earlier journalists had to struggle to even get a word regarding civil our court cases pertaining to bureaucrats and politicians, and now they have access to entire files. Obtaining information from government offices is still not an easy process. It can get harassing for the reporters to make repeated visits to the offices and be shunted across departments, as seen in the aforementioned cases.

The RTI being a relatively new law is still evolving, and the quantum of change it can lead to is still being gauged. However, there is no denying that it can prove to be an extremely powerful tool in the hands of a responsible journalist.


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