Unveiling Secrecy: RTI and Access to Information
The International Day for Universal Access to Information is celebrated each year on 28th September. The term ‘Information’ has important connotations and consequences for the modern world beyond the cursory “acts provided or learned about something or someone” as mandated by the dictionary. The extent, content, and nature of this ‘learned’ information as well as the objective and the audience of this learning, are fundamental to defining the political orders and models of governance that are conceived, and adopted by any state.
This is particularly true of states like India that are conceived as democracies, where the will and choice of the voting public reign supreme. In such a scenario, it is absolutely essential that the people who vote have clarity in their choice of elected representatives, which necessarily involves an unqualified and unrestricted access to information on ‘polity’ and ‘policy’.
Access to Information as a safeguard of Democracy
Public access to information is one of the keys to a thriving democracy. For a democracy to flourish, its public institutions should be free of corruption. In most developing countries, development projects are marred by high levels of corruption. The funds meant for infrastructure, education, health, and housing are diverted to the deep pockets of politicians, middlemen, and contractors. It perpetuates the cycle of poverty and injustice, undermines the rule of law and weakens confidence citizen have in democratic institutions. Corruption thrives due to the lack of transparency and back door deals. With access to information, governments can be held accountable and questioned for their policies and expenditure on health care, education and other public services. Access to information increases public participation in governance by allowing the citizens to scrutinize the actions of the government and encourage a well-informed debate on matters of policy and national importance. A debate, as we know, is the backbone of a healthy democracy.
Right to Information and the death of RTI activists.
In 2005 India joined the illustrious list of countries passing laws for open access to information when the Right to Information Act (RTI) came into force. Under the provision of this Act, any citizen of India can request information from a public authority or office. The concerned office has to reply within 30 days. The Act gives citizens access to information to which hitherto only government officials were privy to, making every citizen a potential whistle-blower. Unfortunately, the Act that was meant to bring transparency in the system has ruffled many feathers.
Tragically, since 2005, more than 60 people have been murdered and numerous others tortured for exposing the corruption in the government on the basis of the information they received under the RTI Act. Nanjibhai Sondarva of Manekvada village in Gujarat is the latest to pay the price for seeking information under RTI. He was murdered by six people in March 2018 for seeking information about the funds spent on the construction of a road in his village. Try a google search on attacks on RTI activists in India and you will be taken aback to find a never-ending list of people who have been murdered, kidnaped, tortured, harassed, assaulted and driven to suicide.
This despite the 2014 Whistle Blowers Protection Act which promises to protect the person who exposes corruption in the government bodies, offices, and projects.
India has been ranked a dismal 81st in Corruption Perception Index 2017 by Transparency International. India has also been characterized as the worst “regional offenders” in Asia Pacific region on grounds of murders of journalists, activists, opposition leaders and intimidation and threatening of investigating agencies. As the statics indicate RTI Act alone can’t combat corruption until a sincere political will to weed out corruption prevails. In the current scenario when crackdowns on activists, journalists and civil society, in general, are on a rise, isn’t it all-important to protect a few who dare to speak up and question the establishment?
The author of this article, Richa Singh is a content writer with Investronaut. She is a voracious reader and a keen traveller.
Digital journalism: A New Way of doing Journalism
A cup of hot tea with the newspaper is the quintessential start to mornings in India. Well, the romance of newspapers may soon be a nostalgic memory of the yesteryears. Next only to China, India has 500 million internet users. With low cost devices and better 3G/4G internet speed, the traditional journalistic landscape is slowly giving way to digital or online journalism.
Traditional Vs Digital Journalism
The rapid boom in mobile internet users coincided with the rise in digital journalism scene. The Wire, Scroll, the Quint are producing interesting content with ‘mobile-first' distribution strategy as mobile devices account for 79 percent of web traffic in India, compared to 50 percent globally. They give real time news and analysis without the shouting matches of the television news rooms.
Digital journalism sets itself apart from the print and T.V. journalism on many accounts. It has catapulted news from a once-a-day product to an ongoing event to be consumed real time on social media and news portals.
For digital journalism web traffic is God. That is why web journalists are expected to know about the workings of the search engines and the use of keywords. They have to be in tune with the trending topics and package the content in an accessible manner by using multimedia tools. While print journalists take pains to carefully frame headlines, a web journalist will think more in terms of the ease of discovery of a story.
While a print journalist may toil to produce an elaborate in-depth article, for a digital journalist, given that the content is consumed mostly on the 5 inches screen of a mobile phones, brevity is important.
The 5Ws and a H ( what, when, where, why, who and how) makes up the bulk of the newspapers with barely two pages of editorial opinion. Digital news websites has less reporting and more analysis.
Digital journalism is an interactive medium where the comments and reactions to a story are quick, editors and writers are constantly put on the spot by the readers making them more accountable.
Antidote to sycophancy
Neutrality of media is a thing of the bygone era. Unfortunately, censorship, pedaling a particular ideology or party line is the norm now. Be it news channels or news papers, barring a few, each media house has a Left or a Right leaning. Digital marketing may not be an absolute antidote to self censorship and bias towards one particular party line but it certainly limits it. Self censorship of an important story by a news portal can cost them the significant loss of web traffic and popularity. They have to cast their net wide and far to keep the readers engaged and keep the web traffic going. Toeing a particular ideology can make them predictable and their niche world view will limit the popularity and reach of their site. The instance of The Wire breaking an important and sensational political story about the BJP president’s son was a flickering ray of hope in the otherwise gloomy state of electronic and print media.
The bottom line is that one can choose to report exclusively about fashion, movies, sports, politics etc but can not afford to be predictable in their views.
Digital journalism weakens the hierarchies of the traditional newsroom. The pace of the news cycle is so swift that a story in the morning may become stale by the afternoon. The pressure to constantly keep the wheel spinning and gauge the online trends, decentralizes the power of an editor as in traditional set up and places more power with the reporters and writers. The judgement of the editor is not to be undermined but a digital news room is more democratic as digital journalism relies on skills other than just writing. A desk rookie good at gauging online trends and writing viral stories could be more useful than a serious editor.
Online news come with its own set of issues of due diligence. The tearing hurry to put the story online often overtakes the need to get it right. A host of unverified, badly stitched stories circulate on the web to attract the traffic. While newspapers have the luxury of time to verify the facts before putting it out the next day.
Our reading habits are changing with shrinking attention spans which means more skimming of news online than real sustained engagement as in the case of newspaper.
Media is facing a serious trust deficit in the wake of constant attacks on journalists and polarized news being the norm of the day. Digital media is no silver bullet but it presents a ray of hope.
Authored by Richa Singh, Content Writer, Investronaut.
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