Above: At the Annual RTI Convention in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that citizens should demand accountability from public authorities
Shyamlal Yadav has done path-breaking stories for India Today and The Indian Express by leveraging RTI to the optimum. In his book, Journalism through RTI, he describes how journalists should persist in digging out information. Extracts:
1. Conceptualize the idea: More than the techniques of using RTI, what is important is to first conceptualize the idea. It is important to ensure, as far as possible, that one does not use RTI for information which is already available in the public domain. This can be achieved only if one is well informed and up to date. First, carefully go through all available means of information to get ideas. Information may be accessed through annual reports, budget speeches, government documents and publications, websites of various, departments, Parliament and assembly questions, and interactions with sources in the relevant departments. Very often, RTI users file applications for information pertaining to minor, irrelevant topics. So before starting any RTI exercise, get an idea of its possible impact based on a broader public interest.
2. Begin by getting available information without RTI: Once the idea is conceptualized, it is important to first explore whether the information can be obtained without using RTI. The best thing about using the Internet is that we can explore all accessible information available in the public domain. Once one has accessed all available information, only then one should draft the RTI application to get information which is not available in the public domain. Before filing an RTI application, reading the RTI Act is important to help one understand how to proceed with an idea under RTI.
3. Don’t question, just ask for information: The RTI Act gives us the right to information and we can ask for any information which is available in any format. Just concentrate on getting that information. Read the definition of the information given in Section 2(f) of the RTI Act.
One may now also use Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments on RTI which he made in the annual RTI convention on October 16, 2015 at Vigyan Bhawan in Delhi. He said, “Citizens should not only have the right to get copies of documents but also ask question and demand accountability from public authorities, because the right to ask questions is the very foundation of democracy and it will reinforce their faith in democracy.”
4. Be simple and clear in format and be aware of the loopholes: While drafting the application asking for information, keep the format simple and easy to comprehend. It is always better that a journalist seeking information does not disclose the idea and just asks for that part of information he/she wants from the concerned public authority. In some states and departments, they have designed their own formats and they reject the queries if it is not filed in their format, therefore, before filing the request, one must check with the particular departments whether it has any format. Also, be aware that the officer to whom the queries are addressed has a load of excuses to pass the buck.
Once one has accessed all available information, only then one should draft the RTI application to get information which is not available in the public domain.
5. Know the exemptions before you exercise the right: We must carefully go through and understand Section 8(1) of the RTI Act before exercising our right to information.
6. Try all concerned public authorities for same information: If the same information is available with multiple authorities, more than one authority can be approached. It often happens that one authority denies the information, while another provides the same without any ifs and buts. For example, in 2009, when I requested the MHA to provide copies of its correspondence with the Delhi Government on the Afzal Guru case, copies were not provided. But Delhi Government’s PIO (public information officer) was quite helpful as he sent me the information after I’d paid the cost of photocopying charges, etc.
7. Get familiar with PIOs: We must try to meet and discuss things with the relevant PIOs before sending an RTI application. There are several PIOs in the government who are ready to share the information. Normally, the PIOs belong to junior cadres like the Central Secretariat Services (CSS) and have a tendency of being at odds with their senior officers like those from the IAS. Since crucial decision-making in government starts at the joint secretary level, the PIOs of junior rank such as section officers, under secretaries, and deputy secretaries do not have much at stake if any embarrassing information is released under the RTI.
The officers themselves often give ideas for exciting stories once they are familiar with the applicant and if they are sure that the information will be used in public interest. We must utilize this conflict among government officials to explore and collect crucial information.
8. Moving targets: We should not give the impression to particular government departments or public information officers that we use RTI only pertaining to them. We must work with an approach of “Na kahoo se dosti, na kahoo se bair (No friendship with anybody, no enmity with anybody).”
So, we should always keep visiting new departments, governments (like state governments), and ministries and be in constant touch with them for our ideas, because the truth is that stories are everywhere.
9. No need to reveal identity of a journalist: If we think some particular authority may not respond favorably if it knows you are a journalist, avoid giving identity. Sometimes, some public authorities, afraid that the information they are providing will be published in the media and will create an impact, hesitate in giving out information. Right to information is meant for every citizen of India so we do not need to disclose who or what we are. Several public authorities respond to queries without asking about the applicants, so it is up to you whether you feel the need to disclose your identity or not and to file your application giving your office address or home address.
The PIOs themselves often give ideas for exciting stories once they are familiar with the applicant and if they are sure that the information will be used in public interest.
10. Be prepared for any response: Some PIOs may initially confuse the applicant by turning down the applications on one pretext or the other. They try to borrow time and delay our information. Even when we file a request on behalf of our news organization, the PIO may turn it down, as happened to me in the case of IIT Kharagpur and IIM Ahmedabad. They turned down my applications saying that the RTI Act “Confers the right to information on all ‘citizens’ and not on all ‘persons’. The ‘citizenship’ can only be a natural born person and it does not even by implication include a legal or juristic person.” In such a situation, take recourse to the CIC order dated September 17, 2007 which said that “directors of companies, partners of firms, and office bearers of association of persons could also seek information on behalf of the companies, firms and associations respectively.”
11. Remember, a NO doesn’t always mean NO: When officers dealing with RTI respond in a negative way or do not provide the information, it does not necessarily mean that they don’t want to provide the information. Sometimes, an informal, personal meeting with them does the trick, while a first appeal against the order creates extra pressure on them to provide the necessary information. We should keep in mind that PIOs work under several seniors and the fact is that they respond on behalf of their departments. Sometimes he/ she is personally inclined to provide the information, but their seniors pressurize them not to. Quite often, when we meet them personally, they will tell how to deal with the hurdles and show the way to get the information. There are many instances in my experience where the information was denied formally, but the same officers provided the same information later, informally.
12. Don’t waste time, file online or by post: In some states such as Maharashtra and Odisha and with the Central Government, one can file an RTI online and submit hard copies to any public authority or send it through postal services. One does not need to go everywhere to submit the applications; the best way to save time is to do so online or send them through post offices. It does not cost much and saves valuable time. The easiest means of processing the fee is an Indian postal order which can be bought from any post office. Also, in the name of Central Government departments, the Postal Department has started issuing e-postal orders which can be printed through India Posts’ website after making an online payment.
13. Be patient, be persistent: During the tedious and boring process of taking the RTI route, one will often feel frustrated. But one must not lose patience because the type of story one can get using RTI is usually not possible through other means of investigative reporting. So, once the story is finalized, published, and creates an impact, one will feel vindicated and elated. Sometimes such stories will be among the award-winning entries. So, keep persisting with efforts. I myself have filed many thousand applications, and a majority of them were mere wastage of time, but I do not bother, for I have always concentrated on the positive outcome of the efforts. Even without RTI, when a journalist explores some story, often it needs much time and wasteful efforts, so what if that happens under RTI as well? So, a journalist must be prepared always for such efforts in search of a good story.
We should always keep visiting new departments, state governments, and ministries and be in constant touch with them for our ideas, because the truth is that stories are everywhere.
14. Do extra work on information: The information we access through RTI is hardly useful or adequate for stories in the form in which it is supplied. It depends entirely on us what information we finally manage to unearth after repeated efforts and, more importantly, on how best we utilize them in formulating our idea and writing the story. Very often, we will need to prepare multiple drafts to give maturity to the idea and need to work several weeks or months to convert all the accessed information into a hard-hitting story. Although several RTI activists and NGOs supply and give access to information to journalists, only a few of them have an impact, since it is not processed and analyzed in a proper and effective journalistic manner.
15. Have sensitivity toward RTI officials: While using RTI, journalists must always be sensitive toward the person sitting across the table. One must be sensitive to the fact that he/she is not given any extra remuneration for supplying information and in case of any blunder he/she may have to face the consequences. Also, we should remember that these officials are employed on public money and they have to deal with RTI applications along with their other official duties.
While the government has enacted the RTI law, it does not fill the vacant posts in the departments, so the officers are loaded with work. So, as far as possible, we should avoid filing multiple requests in the same department for the same information. And, we should not seek information which is already available in the public domain. I realize through my experience that most of the officials who deal with RTI provide the information without any hassle if they are convinced that the applicant has only the public interest in mind. Therefore, we should try to win their trust and make them realize that we are just doing our job with the purpose of bringing about reforms in the system, nothing else.
16. Take help from information commissioners: Since most of the information commissioners are retired bureaucrats, they understand the functioning of the government system and they know well what information is kept with which department. Although some commissioners may be protecting particular persons, they largely would like to be seen as pro-transparency and supportive of openness. We should take benefit of their experience and utilize it to get ideas and in understanding how, when, and where to move RTI.
As far as I am concerned, I avoid taking my cases into CIC because it takes much time. What I prefer is to meet the officials and file again another RTI with changed words in the hope of access to information. But this must not be a principal for all users. One must take its appeals to CIC/ SICs if information is denied by PIO/FAA.
17. Inspection of documents: As per section 2(j) of the RTI Act: Right to information includes the right to: inspection of work, documents, records; taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records; taking certified samples of material; obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device.
One must be sensitive to the fact that an officer is not given any extra remuneration for supplying information and in case of any blunder he/she may have to face the consequences.
This provision of inspection of documents must be utilized by journalists as, with its help, one can easily penetrate any government office in order to develop contacts for further stories besides getting the particular information on hand.
18. Stories from the ground: Real stories of grassroots-level development are with the district administrations, several other government agencies at the district level, panchayats, and offices at the ground level. So far, many stories have not come, though there have been several efforts by some vernacular media; but in the absence of proper ideation and training, all the process seems to be held up now.
Media at the grassroots level, like in most cases at the Center and states as well, depends on the information accessed by NGOs and activists. For proper ideation and effective use of RTI in public interest, vernacular and regional media persons working at the grassroots level must be trained for that. Media men working outside Delhi should take interest in that regard. Getting information from the Central Government is easy, but it is very difficult to get correct and timely information from… grassroots level offices of government.
19. State-level stories: The same situation is at the state level. While many big success stories have come from the Central Government on broad public interest issues, in the states the case is not like that. Although some journalists in the states have been using RTI, the need is to appoint a reporter in news organizations as a full-time user of RTI who coordinates with other colleagues on possible RTI-based stories and facilitates exploring those ideas.
In the absence of proactive use of RTI by media in public interest, the RTI is losing its shine in many states, and in some states such as UP, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, and Odisha it depends on the luck of a user whether the request is responded to and the information would be supplied or not and also the number of months the response may take. Some state governments have become more and more resistant toward RTI year after year, and one thing they never bother about is the time limit of replying to an RTI request.
20. Follow up, follow up: It is the beauty of the RTI Act that one can keep the public authorities always on watch on any issue. Once the story is filed, we must not forget the issue. What I do in many cases is file an RTI application just after publishing the story to know the impact of the story. It makes our work impact-making and significant. So, after publishing any story which is of public interest, one may file an RTI application to know the follow-up.
Once a story is published, one may not do the follow-up story, but RTI itself makes an impact if we ask for the information regarding what was done by the concerned authorities after the publication of the story.