By Gangadhar S Patil
Twenty years ago when the Aruna Roy organized the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan to fight for poor peasants and rural labourers in a remote village of Rajsamand district in Rajasthan, demanding the right to know often came at a heavy price. Sadly not much has changed. The recent murder of Satish Shetty, 38, a right to information (RTI) activist on January 13 in Pune underscores how, despite the enactment of a law to ensure the freedom of information, activists who seek to use its provisions are soft targets for criminals and corrupt officials.
The nationwide RTI movement forced the enactment of the legislation of Freedom of Information (FIO) Act in 2002 and subsequently the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005. Over 50 countries now have freedom of information laws and another 15-20 are actively considering adopting one. The right to freedom of information derives primarily from the guarantee of freedom of expression found in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But with increasing use of RTI to expose corruption and maladministration, the threat to activists only grows. Shetty’s murder evokes horrific memories of the murders of Satyendra Dubey, an engineer of National Highway Authority of India and Manjunath Shanmugam, an Indian Oil Corporation executive, both killed for exposing criminals. Last year Venkatesh, another RTI activist, was murdered in Bangalore. He had sought information about encroachment on Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagar Palike land.
Ashok Halgalli (from Belgaum), an advocate is the first RTI activist to get police protection after seeking information about the assets of an IAS officer. He says “If security is required for RTI activists, it shall be given to them immediately without any delay.” One possible way to protect the RTI activist would be to inform the police authority in advance in sensitive cases, feels J S D Pani, an RTI activist.
“Corrupt public servants have not only kept a large population very poor but are also directly responsible for many deaths,” says Jayashree J N, an RTI activist from Bangalore. Unfortunately as the corrupt are in a majority, she adds, we are in a situation where seeking protection is meaningless, as the people who have to protect us are the very people creating the problem. Y. G. Muralidharan, an RTI and consumer rights advocate says activists can easily be protected provided their identity is not disclosed. This was not adhered to in Satyendra Dubey’s case.
The Act has become the most important tool in the hand of the common man. It has in fact helped people’s movements for social, economic and political justice. Whether it is the recent judgment of Delhi High Court bringing the Chief Justice of India under the purview of RTI or the India Today reporter who filed 59 RTIs to reveal how UPA ministers had made 786 foreign trips in just three and a half years and spent a minor fortune on their travels.
The very logic of the RTI would suggest that the time has come to legally protect “whistleblowers” or those who seek to expose wrongdoing. The Law Commission, the National Human Rights Commission and the Administrative Reforms Commission have all recommended such a law. After all, a government legally bound to protect the freedom of information and also has a duty to protect those who seek to exercise it.