Indian authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate threats and attacks on so-called right-to-information activists, Human Rights Watch said today. The killing of a right-to-information activist in Bihar state in August 2015 highlights the risks to people requesting information from the authorities, as provided by law.
Since India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act was enacted in 2005, at least 45 right-to-information users and activists have been killed and over 250 assaulted, harassed, or threatened, according to local groups. Police often fail to investigate the attacks, under pressure from politicians and contractors with vested interests in keeping the information from becoming public.
“The Indian government needs to fully enforce the Right to Information Act if it has any hope of curtailing the theft of public funds and ensuring accountability for abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Seeking information from the government shouldn’t be a death sentence.”
On August 10, unidentified assailants kidnapped 63-year-old Jawahar Lal Tiwary in his village in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district. Four days later his body was found near a river a few kilometers away. Tiwary had filed nearly 30 requests under the RTI Act in the last two years to seek details about distribution of government relief for victims of a 2013 flood in Bihar.
Tiwary’s family told Human Rights Watch that while the police have filed kidnapping and murder cases against seven people, they have not apprehended the suspects or provided the family adequate protection. They said that their house had been attacked shortly after Tiwary’s death and that they have since been receiving threats and fear for their lives. They alleged that after complaining to senior officials that local police were not properly investigating Tiwary’s murder, a local police official threatened to bring false charges against them.
Tiwary was an activist with the Sahebganj Vikas Manch, an organization set up after the floods in Sahebganj in Muzaffarpur district. He had twice been attacked and had received threats on multiple occasions for questioning public officials, including elected members of the village council about how flood relief funds were distributed. Colleagues said that Tiwary had reported the attacks and threats to the police, but that the police failed to properly investigate his complaints.
Indian right-to-information activists like Tiwary are often especially vulnerable because they tend to work alone. They frequently seek information pertaining to local governance, which puts them close to those they are investigating, including powerful politicians, public officials, and wealthy individuals. A 2011 report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights alleged that “a dangerous nexus has been formed between corrupt officials, politicians and the mafia to silence the RTI activists.”
Many RTI applications seek information on encroachment of public or private land, illegal mining, and corruption and irregularities in the implementation of government programs for the poor, such as to provide work or housing. In one case, a panchayat (village council) in Raigad district in Maharashtra state reportedly threatened a right-to-information activist, Laxman Thakur, after he filed an RTI application in December 2014 seeking information regarding encroachments of forest land. A council member allegedly picked up a brick and threatened to smash Thakur’s head, and the council threatened to ostracize his family.
In the exceptional cases in which police have carried out serious investigations, they have often established that right-to-information activists were targeted because of their work. Bihar police found in a 2011 case that Ram Vilas Singh had been shot dead in Lakhi Sarai town because he had filed several RTI queries asking why an accused in a murder case had not been arrested. In February 2015 the Central Bureau of Investigation decided to re-investigate the 2009 murder of Pune-based right-to-information activist Satish Shetty because it had found new evidence during the search of a private builder’s home and offices against whom Shetty had sought information for alleged land grabs.
“The RTI Act is designed to ensure transparency in governance, but if the authorities don’t protect activists, it will have a chilling effect on efforts to expose wrongdoing and corruption,” Ganguly said. “Repeatedly we find that the police are not doing their job of protecting activists and are protecting the perpetrators instead.”
India enacted the RTI Act after a long struggle to “promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.” According to a 2014 report by the RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group and the Samya-Centre for Equity Studies, on average about four million RTI applications are filed every year. Public officials often frustrate RTI users with delays or inadequate answers, or deny the information on specious grounds, but the law has still empowered the citizens to question public officials. Activists’ applications have exposed fraud and misappropriation of public funds by government officials in numerous instances, leading to action against them.
RTI applications were instrumental in unearthing a housing fraud in Mumbai in which apartments meant for war widows and veterans were instead given to politicians, bureaucrats, and their relatives. The state’s chief minister resigned over his alleged involvement. There are also success stories of the poor using the RTI Act to seek greater accountability in government policies and programs. Impoverished residents of the town of Kakol in Gujarat used the RTI Act to ensure they got their allotted share of kerosene through the public distribution system. Villagers in a remote part of Uttar Pradesh used the law to ensure that the government-appointed teacher came to work regularly.
The national and state human rights commissions have not helped to protect right-to-information activists because they do not treat them as human rights defenders or take notice of attacks against them. However, in recent years the National Human Rights Commission has followed up on a few such attacks, which helped bring about some better police investigations.
Information commissions, which redress grievances about denial of information and other complaints against public authorities relating to the RTI law, are under-resourced and under-staffed. Several have serious backlogs. According to a June 2015 Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative study, over 180,000 complaints and appeals are pending across the country.
In February 2014 parliament passed the Whistleblowers Protection Act, but in May 2015 the government pushed through amendments to the law that activists say if enacted will make it harder to report corruption. The amendments expand the possible exemptions for disclosing information and eliminate immunity from prosecution for whistleblowers if they disclose information that falls under the draconian Official Secrets Act.
The right to information is embedded in international human rights law. A 1946 United Nations General Assembly resolution says that “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and ... the touch-stone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” In 1995, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression elaborated on this in his report to the UN Commission on Human Rights, saying: “Freedom will be bereft of all effectiveness if the people have no access to information. Access to information is basic to the democratic way of life. The tendency to withhold information from the people at large is therefore to be strongly checked.”
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party, states that the right to freedom of expression includes the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” The UN Human Rights Committee, in its 2011 general comment on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, states that governments should enact freedom of information legislation that “provide[s] for the timely processing of requests for information according to clear rules” that are compatible with fundamental rights.
The government should take immediate steps to ensure that the RTI Act is enforced in compliance with domestic and international law.
Information commissions should immediately publicly disclose the information sought if an RTI user is attacked or threatened, thus helping to defeat the purpose of the attack. Further, the information commissions should also investigate which RTI queries result in attacks on applicants and ensure greater transparency in public institutions dealing with them. For instance, broader disclosure of documents dealing with implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act at village and district levels will remove the secrecy that corrupt officials want to maintain and their motive for attacking RTI users.
“Ensuring that people’s access to information is protected can play a significant role in India’s growth and development,” Ganguly said. “Greater transparency by public institutions can effectively frustrate the motives of those who are trying to hide the information that people fighting corruption are seeking.”