RTI Activists – an Endangered Species

News of RTI activists being killed isn’t exactly news, but it hit home hard on Twitter yesterday, when Shehla Masood was shot dead in her car near her home. Well liked as @shehlamasood it made a big difference when someone people chatted with regularly was dead within an hour of per last tweet as she left for the IAC meeting where she was supporting Anna Hazare’s fast against corruption…. But she didn’t make it, did she? When news hit that she was dead, I remember checking her profile and saying it was a rumor, because she was tweeting. But it wasn’t. She hadn’t even been gone long enough to be thought stopped tweeting before news of her death hit.

People were aghast. It is one thing to tweet and discuss and share news of RTI activists being killed, and quite another to see it intimately or at least in intellectual intimacy.

People scrambled to make sense. StarNewsLive had initialy announced the news as an IAC supporter shot dead, and the initial assumption had been that a [male] protester had got killed in police firing at the scene of protest. Then it became rapidly clear what her identity was, and her identity as an RTI activist and wildlife supporter became more prominent when people realized that she was following a hearing for a case where a tigress was killed.

She had filed 40 RTIs against forest and police officers.

Soon, a letter got shared in the news where she suspects an IPS officer of threatening her safety. A letter on which no action had been taken.

Her profile says:

“RTI crusader,Wildlife conservationist, Trekker, Social causes leader,President Progressive Muslim Women’s Asso, A born rebel, Arguing with policy makers,Foodie. http://letzchangedrulz-miracles.blogspot.com/

Any of these things, except “foodie” can get a person killed. Who killed her? In the absence of further information, the chatter felt silent. Five teams have been set up in Bhopal to investigate her murder and bring the assailant to justice, but we don’t know anything as of now. I saw this as a familiar pattern, and it was niggling me.

Perhaps because I challenge a lot of norms too, and I understand the need to do it, and the vulnerability.

So here I am sharing some things that occur to me that we can do, so that RTI activists can be safer. Many of these might work for journalists, rights activists and other can-of-worms openers too.

  • Demand that RTI activists asking for protection must be provided it, and/or any appropriate investigation be started immediately. It should be enough to provide a reference to a pending or recent RTI petition to automatically put the request on fast track or be answerable for complicity in any harm.
  • Media needs to step up and shoulder the responsibility in this. All major publications should have departments that will follow up on RTI applications abandoned halfway – for whatever reason, and the original application and replies when received should be published. This will ensure that the actions that can get individuals killed are taken on with media houses with investigative reporters and resources which are near impossible to silence.
  • Media publishing RTI information prominently on death should become such a routine method – like “shraddhanjali” songs when famous singers die, that it must be clear that killing an RTI activist is guaranteed to shine an even harsher spotlight on the information that they were seeking.
  • Worth exploring the idea of a public archive of RTIs where information made public through the RTI can be accessed by anyone – ideally searchable (with permission of applicant or anonymous). This will give others seeking information instant access as well as allow for other kinds of statistical research etc that can lead to improved understanding. Misuse of the RTI or suppression of applications, or “blackholes” in information will become more visible.
  • Another idea is forming “Information banks” – either as a separate service, or a network of blogs/media houses where journalists, RTI activists or anyone who can be in danger because of what they uncover can store their information as insurance. This will work by ensuring that the silenced information will get a lot of attention if released due to harm.
  • By blackholes, I mean if any entity that should be answering RTI applications but isn’t seeming to, it will become obvious. And there can be some investigation if it is a case of no information seeked, or information evaded. Sometimes it can simply be that all information is confidential and thus not published.
  • There should be a method for RTI activists to post “back ups” of the information they seek – for example to the RTI Archive, or Addressing it to “RTI Safety” at any publication. Ordinarily, these letters should just become more scrap paper, unless for some reason no reply gets notified, or information of some harm to the applicant comes in.

Many of these steps don’t even need lengthy red tape. It takes no time for a newspaper to announce that they will safeguard copies of RTI applications by anyone who sends them in as an offering of safety.

The main thing is that the backup should be a fairly simple functioning system that can’t be interfered without policy decisions rather than an individual who can be threatened or harmed.

Collected from comments and feedback:

Sir Twe(e/a)tALot  shared – These are more structural/legal kind of suggestions:

  • Online anonymous filing of RTI application with an email address attached to it.
  • List of existing RTI applications filed category wise and the time elapsed along with time required (as mentioned by the responder to the RTI)
  • RTI queries elapsing mentioned response time should be automatically sent to higher officials
  • No one should be able to cancel or delete an RTI application except the applicant himself. If the responder states the application is invalid, the explanation should be given in writing to the activist
  • Special RTI application courts & law courses (very important)
  • RTI Union. could even be collection of NGOs but a private association of RTI applicants to give them some united voice (MOST IMPORTANT) because not every RTI applicant need be a blogger or on twitter (remember the RTI activists of Maharashtra fighting the Pune land mafia). <== Very similar idea to the RTI Archive. I like that one better, because it allows activists to be anonymous. Also, the activists need not be bloggers or media people, but they can simply send a copy to any out of a network of volunteers – depending on whom they trust

I think enough truth seekers have been harmed, and it is high time we do something about it. NOW, while loss still burns our timelines and inboxes.