A frenzied media fails to use the RTI Act

BY Manu Moudgil| IN Media Practice | 22/05/2011
Social activists have converted the RTI into a powerful tool for those seeking justice, using persistence. They acquire information under the act and give it to the media.
But journalists, regrets MANU MOUDGIL, have lagged behind in realising its potential.
“Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders.” This quote by US President Ronald Reagan summarises the significance attributed to facts, figures and data and the need to make them freely available across servers and bandwidths. In this age of internet and mobile networks, the amount of information available to us is far more than we can possibly assimilate. Ironically, our thirst for information has increased as forums like Wikileaks or the Right to Information (RTI) Act open up more possibilities. While the former engages in a guerrilla war against the powers that be, the latter works as a democratic tool to bring in transparency and accountability.
The impact of RTI since its advent in 2005, has given us new hope. The light at the end of tunnel has grown into a full blown torch of transparency held afloat largely by social activists and to some extent by a few dedicated government officials. An unexpected laggard who is yet to exploit the full potential of the legislation remains the Indian journalist. When the RTI Act came into force it was assumed that it would be the best tool in a journalist’s hands. Sadly this has not been the case and social activists are filling in the gap left behind by journalists. They are taking a lead in acquiring information under the act and in giving it to the media.
So why are journalists wary of using RTI? They know the inside stories on their beats and they can draft an RTI application by asking the "right questions".
The problem, it seems, lies in the time and persistence needed in procuring and analysing the information. Take for instance the recent Adarsh Society Scam in Mumbai. The information sought by the National Alliance for Peoples’ Movement (NAPM) made a brilliant story which ran for several months and also had the desired impact. Any journalist would have loved to get a by-line on this story. NAPM began looking into the issue six years ago. It filed around seven RTI applications with the Mumbai collectorate, state revenue department, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, state urban development and environment departments asking for details of file notings, sale of land and environmental clearances. It had to wait for almost six months to get responses even though under the RTI Act, it is mandatory for authorities to reply within 30 days of receiving the query. Needless to say, the fight for release of information was diligently followed for months by members of NAPM. To imagine a journalist doing something similar seems implausible.
In media organisations the stress is on exclusives and deadlines. A typical day of a print journalist includes looking at rival publications to check if she has missed any story, getting fired by her boss at the morning meeting, visiting her beat and then reaching office in time to file exclusives as well as jot down spot news. Filing RTI applications, procuring documents after several appeals to the appellate authority and then going through them to first understand and then get a bigger picture means extra slogging. So she takes the easier way out and cultivates a source and gets the same information (even if half baked). She gets the by-line and the newspaper gets its exclusive. The story maybe short of proof and the "reliable source" may abandon the journalist midway but nobody thinks long term.
To fill up eight columns of a broadsheet or 24x7 of video tapes, the media organisations need exclusives fast and now. The days of investigative journalism involving scrutiny of relevant documents have given way to spy cams, audio recordings and irrelevant breaking news. However, exceptions exist and are always welcome. In 2010, Outlook correspondent Saikat Dutta got the National RTI award given by Public Cause Research Foundation for his work exposing export of PDS rice to foreign countries by private companies in connivance with government officials. India Today Special Correspondent Shyamlal Yadav won the same award in 2009 for using RTI Act to expose foreign jaunts by ministers and junketeering by bureaucrats causing loss to the exchequer. However, journalists like Dutta and Yadav are few. The fact that Yadav was the only media representative among 1,130 nominees again underscores the fact that not many are following the lead.
A three month analysis (January 1 to March 31, 2011) of Mail Today newspaper and Times of India shows there were 15 stories (six in TOI and nine in Mail Today) using information obtained through use of the RTI Act to expose misappropriation of public assets or prejudice in government functioning. However only two (one each in TOI and Mail Today) were based on an RTI application filed by their staff correspondents. This means that over 86 per cent of the RTI related stories originated from the information provided by NGOs or independent activists.
It's not that journalists don't file RTI applications. They, however, get frustrated with the appeals they have to make and wait for CIC to give its rulings. Often the lure of 'sources' forces them to quit. Then the RTI-related stories are confined to getting information just to dig deeper into the already known facts. Consider the following stories filed by staff correspondents.
The Mail Today (14h Feb, 2010, ‘Blame it on Kalmadi and Co for Games empty seats’) reported that according to information provided in response to an RTI application, about 50 per cent of the tickets to the various events during Common Wealth Games were made complimentary but the tickets never reached the right hands. Those requesting for complimentary passes were made to wait endlessly with no definite answers as seats remained unoccupied till the end in many events. However, the fact had already been reported by the same newspaper by quoting a source and the RTI application only gave it a more authentic look.
Using RTI the Times of India (March 22, 2011, ‘RTI negates Nehru library heads charges’), story negates the complaint made by the director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) that change in recruitment rules for directors post and revocation of suspension of deputy director were illegal.
The story goes on to say: “new facts accessed through RTI by TOI reveal that the idea of changing the recruitment rule from `eminent scholar of modern Indian history’ to `eminent scholar with specialization in social sciences’ came from Karan Singh, chairman, executive council, NMML.” Though the story does make some hitherto unknown information available, it does not serve any public interest. The RTI was filed to negate an officer’s complaints against relief awarded to another officer and change in department rules.
In contrast, the 87 per cent of stories based on RTI applications filed by NGOs and activists deal with issues including land scams, violation of school admission norms, misappropriation of funds by Common Wealth Games Organising Committee, illegal drug tests on Bhopal gas victims and false claims by a water purifier company.
It all boils down again to time in hand. If media organisations want their journalists to get bigger and better stories, they need to give them enough breathing space. Plodding through information that becomes available through an RTI application needs a dedicated approach. Unless this `breaking news’ culture which forces journalists to run into print or air baseless findings changes, we are not likely to see many genuine exposes.
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