Right to Information: A tool to combat disinformation
India passed the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005 which gave the hope of transparency and accountability to its citizens. Since its adoption more than a decade ago, the act has helped in highlighting several frauds and enabled citizens to hold government and public authorities accountable for their actions. However, over time the essence of the RTI Act has been systematically eroded.
In 2011 the RTI Act was ranked second in the world according to The RTI Rating, a website hosted by Access Info and Centre for Law and Democracy. However, in the past few years, it has slipped, now standing at seventh position. The ratings look at how RTI laws function across countries. The list uses a 150-point scale to indicate strengths and weaknesses of freedom of information laws around the world. The score is based on 61 indicators categorised under seven heads — right to access, scope, requesting procedure, exceptions and refusals, appeals, sanctions and protections, promotional measures.
According to the report, one of the biggest problems India faces with its RTI act is that it does not offer any protection to officials who “release information that shows wrongdoing”. India scored just above 60% under the ‘Sanctions and Protections’ section. Schedule 2 of the RTI Act provides blanket exceptions to reject applications filed against entities that are involved in security, intelligence, research and economic development. According to a report published by Transparency International India, out of 917,009 RTI applications received in 2016-17 60,428 applications were rejected.
In 2019, the central government amended the rules of the RTI Act that affect the working of the Information Commissions. The Information Commissions are set up as autonomous institutions so that RTI applicants can file a complaint without facing the complex technicalities of courts. If the concerned authority rejects an RTI request, the applicant can make a first appeal to the Information Commission. It is necessary to ensure that the Information Commissions are sufficiently empowered to work in an unbiased and neutral manner.
With the new amendments, the central government gained power over the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of the Information Commissioners. There is concern that the autonomy of the Information Commissions might be compromised due to the increasing influence of the government.
The rules are not the only hindrances faced by the activists while accessing information under the act. Active RTI users face difficulties from vested individuals and are pressurised to not to persue their application. Registration of false cases, accusations of blackmailing and other means to harass RTI users are routinely exercised by vested individuals. Activists who live in rural areas are an easier target, as they do not have easy access to police, media and civil society. Sometimes the cost that RTI activists have to pay seeking transparency is with their lives.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent, non-partisan international NGO headquartered in India working in human rights and has been a long-standing partner of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. According to CHRI’s online documentation of attacks on RTI users across India, 451 RTI users have been attacked since the inception of the act in 2005. Out of these 451 users, 87 have been killed and seven of the users committed suicide.
In February 2020, the fourteen year old son of an RTI activist, was arrested under the Arms Act as an adult for alleged charges of illegal ownership of a country-made pistol and live cartridges in the possession of his companions. The activist alleged that his son had been framed in the case because of his work filing several RTIs to uncover irregularities in the jobs and agricultural schemes provided by the Bihar government. It took more than five months to prove that the boy is a minor in front of the Juvenile Justice Board and get him bailed out.
In May 2019, an RTI activist committed suicide after seven cases of extortion were registered against him. He sent his suicide letter to a media outlet in which he mentioned that all the cases registered against him were false and backlash for using the RTI to expose corruption. In his suicide letter, he named several influential persons, including a former BJP minister, former district collector, a senior police official, some influential businesspersons, and officials of a private insurance company. Police informed the media that they will be investigating this case from all angles possible but there is no update available.
In a medical crisis such as the one presented by COVID-19, the open and free flow of information from the state to citizens is vital. The provisions of the RTI Act and the below-par implementation by state authorities has failed to deliver, often compounding the impact of the virus.
A query, under the RTI, was registered seeking details of utilization of the PM CARES Fund during the pandemic. The Fund was founded in March 2020 by the Prime Minister to combat the outbreak of the coronavirus. The Fund is managed by the Prime Minster’s Office (PMO) and lists the Prime Minster as the chairperson. This query was denied by the PMO, stating that it is not a public authority and the State Bank of India, the largest Indian national bank, also refused to give any details, on the ground that it was a piece of third party information held under fiduciary capacity. There have been various RTI requests seeking information on the working of the PM CARES Fund but all have been rejected on different criteria. There is no transparency in respect to its functioning, accounts or even audits.
In other examples where information was requested from either the Department of Financial Services or Chief Labour Commissioner, it was never received either because the request kept transferring from one department to the other or because the information was not available. An inefficient system of collecting and managing data for release under the RTI during the pandemic has denied citizens access to information that they have a right to know.
The free flow of information is necessary to guarantee that a nation’s democratic principles are upheld. The decline in India’s ranking indicates that there is a systematic effort by higher officials to conceal information from citizens. An effective RTI system can ensure that disinformation is addressed by providing the requested information to individuals. The lack of information has a direct correlation with the impact of fake news, misinformation, and disinformation. During this pandemic, when the public is already under significant stress, disinformation can exasperate these already existing tensions. In April- May 2020, India already witnessed the impact of misinformation where the divide between Hindus and Muslims was exploited and amplified. The impact of medical misinformation in India has been written about by our colleague at FNF South Asia and is available here. It is vital for the government to take necessary steps to ensure that citizens are well informed and the menace of misinformation doesn’t take over the nation.