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India Must take Effective Measures to Protect Persons Using RTI Act

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Preliminary Report of an International Fact Finding Mission to India on the Right to Information Act

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) conducted an international fact finding mission to India on 16 to 22 September to examine the status of implementation of the Right to Information Act. This is a report of the preliminary findings and recommendations by the fact finding mission.

The fact finding mission was comprised of two human rights experts, Kundan Aryal, a freelance journalist and media expert from Nepal and Shruti Nagvanshi, a human rights activist associated with Varanasi based People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR). Balkrishna Basnet, a fellow with the South Asia Department of FORUM-ASIA, was also in the team to provide assistance and coordination.

The mission conducted meetings and interviews with right to information (RTI) and social activists, victim’s families, and government officials in Bhopal including the Inspector General of Police, Chief Information Commissioner and State Human Rights Commission of Bhopal. The mission team spent four days in Bhopal where Shehla Masood, who became well known for her use of the RTI, was killed last month. In the course of examination of the situation of RTI activists in India, the mission also met in New Delhi with Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of India and B.B. Shriwastav, Secretary of the Central Information Commission of India.

On 15 June 2005, the Indian Parliament passed the Right to Information Act in order to set out the practical regime on the citizen’s right to information. To secure people’s access to information and promote transparency and accountability, public authorities such as the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions were formed under the Act.
We acknowledge that RTI Act has been safeguarding the people’s right to know and making government officials more accountable to the public. Over the years however, persons who seek information by using their legal rights under this law have been threatened, beaten up and even killed. A number of incidents related to the attacks and harassment against the defenders of the right to information have been reported in media. According to Asian Centre for Human Rights based in New Delhi, at least 12 RTI activists, including Shehla Masood, have been killed for seeking information under the RTI Act since 2010. Masood was murdered on 16 August 2011 while waiting inside a car outside her home.

The prevailing general perception in Bhopal is that powerful and influential hands were involved in Masood’s murder. It is common knowledge in Bhopal that she had actively filed RTI applications to obtain information on various public interest issues, and was waiting for replies to over 40 such applications she had filed in different departments of the state government when she was assassinated. Shehla had sought information on a variety of issues, from corruption, to abuse of power, to police reforms, to tiger conservation. She had also filed RTIs related to income tax details about a member of the Rajya Sabha and his non-governmental organization. According to her father, Masood Zaidi, Shehla sent a letter to Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram on 2 September 2009 informing about threats to life that she had been receiving. Local media reported that one of her RTI applications against the government and another against an upper house member were supposed to be heard on the same day at the Madhya Pradesh Information Commission.

According to Masood’s family, initially they faced difficulty to register first information report (FIR) on the killing of Shehla Masood to the police. They revealed that the police at first tried to classify her death as a suicide case. The police later again tried to establish motives for the murder as related to property disputes, and then to money lending.

In the view of the Masood family, they have provided the police with all necessary information which would support an effective investigation into the case. Masood’s family also submitted to the police two anonymous computer-printout letters that they received after her killing. The letters informed her family that the Police had been destroying evidence related to the case, and appealed to Masood family to be cautious.

When the National Human Rights Commission of India asked the Director General of Police of Madhya Pradesh to provide a report within weeks, the Madhya Pradesh Government announced a reward of one lakh rupees (100,000 Indian Rupees) to anyone who provided any information that would solve the murder case. The case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which subsequently issued a public notice on a Rs. 5 lakh reward on 16 September 2011 to anyone who could impart vital information regarding the murder.
Justice KG Balakrishnan, Chairperson of the NHRC India, in this regard, expressed his view that even though there are a few exceptional cases, in general people have been using RTI Act to get useful and important information. Human rights activists including RTI activists have not been in danger. In his view, the NHRC is concerned over the attacks on human rights activists. He informed the mission that NHRC promptly intervenes whenever it receives complaints from both human rights defenders who are in danger, as well as any other complaints of human rights violations as mandated to the NHRC.

In the context of the Masood case, based on complaints filed by non-governmental organizations and individuals, NHRC had asked the Director General of Police (DGP), the government of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh to submit a detailed report within four weeks from 18 August 2011.  NHRC has not received any report and according to the Information and Public Relation Officer of the NHRC, it is set to issue a first reminder to the DGP of Madhya Pradesh. It is worth mentioning that however, the mission was told by the Bhopal Police that they did not perceive any complaint of threats to RTI activists in Madhya Pradesh.

Six years ago, Indian Parliament passed the Right to Information Act to promote good governance through transparency and accountability. Over the years this legislation has proved as an effective tool to empower common people. However, the struggle to establish a culture of transparency and accountability continues. The security of the persons, seeking information relating to public matters, has been one of the major challenges before the RTI Act in India.

The mission, therefore, makes the following recommendations:

  1. The Government of India needs to initiate serious debate among the policy makers, civil society groups and in media on protection of those seeking information under the RTI Act in line with witness protection. Furthermore, the Central Government as well as the State Governments need to recall and do the needful to translate into reality section 26 (1) of the RTI Act that reads, “develop and organize educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, in particular of disadvantaged communities as to how to exercise the rights contemplated under this Act.”
  2. Human rights institutions and the local police must take earliest measures to look into the threats highlighted in the complaints of the information seekers. This would help prevent serious human rights violations from taking place.
  3. Despite the fact that Shehla Masood’s case is being handled by the CBI, the NHRC should conduct separate investigation into all the 12 cases of death of human rights defenders who were primarily targeted due to their work on RTI Act.
  4. Efforts should be made to rationalize the ‘delay factor’ in getting information, particularly at the appeal stage, as specified in Sub section 3 of section 19 that reads a second appeal against the decision under sub-section 1 shall lie within ninety days from the date of the order. Sub-section 1 has provision for appeal. Anyone seeking critical information runs the risk of prolonged threat to life due to procedural delay.
  5. Human Rights/RTI activists should inform about threats they received to the focal point on human rights defenders set up by the National Human Right Commission which provides 24 hours support. It is important that everyone should know it.
  6. Media as the prime human rights defender should consider highlighting cases of human rights activists or RTI activists who are in danger as this will help in ensuring greater accountability among law enforcing agencies.

The mission thanks the NHRC of India, the Central Information Commission of India, the State Human Rights Commission and State Information Commission of Madhya Pradesh, the Bhopal Police, media practitioners, RTI and social activists, and the Masood family for their valuable support, especially in relaying information and views to the mission.

For more information, please contact:
1.    Kundan Aryal, Mobile: +977-98510-00811, Kathmandu, Nepal, email: [email protected]
2.    Shruti Nagvanshi, Mobile:  +99 35599330, Varanashi, India, email: [email protected]