Right to Information confined to government

IN Media Practice | 10/01/2005
Right to Information confined to government?

 

 

To be meaningful, the Bill will have to open all cupboards of vital information, private and public. That includes the media, which does not publish all the information in its possession. 

 

 

 

 

Dasu Krishnamoorty

 

Besides unraveling skeletons in government cupboards, newshounds constantly expose corruption in the corporate sector and its cost and consequences for the investor public. However, corporate information is not as readily available for newsmen or the public as information they could demand from public or state agencies after the passage of the Right to Information Bill. Even after the Bill becomes law, newspersons will have to employ a variety of ingenious as well as questionable means to get from the private sector information that could alert the public about decisions and actions taken in boardrooms likely to harm their interests. Corporate-owned media all along had us believe that private space is sacred and exempt from public inquiry. The debate that followed the introduction of the Bill at the fag end of the winter session of Parliament confirms this belief.

 

Several NGOs and media generally seem to be unhappy with the Bill as evident from the views they aired on it. The day after the UPA government introduced the Bill, the National Campaign for People¿s Right to Information (NCPRI) accused the government of reneging on its assurances in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) by tabling such a weak and flawed Bill. Members of the NCPRI sought the intervention of UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi to ensure that the government removes "anomalies" in the Bill. It is natural that they had sought Sonia¿s intervention because it was she who drafted the new Bill in her capacity as the head of the National Advisory Council.

 

While Ritu Sarin of The Indian Express thought the revised Act has radical proposals to ensure "unprecedented" transparency in sections of the government, NCPRI members failed to see any such transparency and stressed the need to amend and finalize the Bill publicly and transparently. They complained, "The Bill appears to be intended to be restricted to the Central government and Union territories." Aruna Roy, a member both of NCPRI and the National Advisory Council (NAC), told Ritu that information on what was happening to the 36 amendments seemed to be getting lost in a big black hole." But Ritu sounded happy that the provisions of the Bill oblige intelligence and security agencies, hitherto insulated from the public¿s right to know, to disclose information related to complaints of human rights violations or corruption, though information about 19 security and intelligence agencies can still be denied to the public.

 

A complaint common to both media and NGOs like NCPRI relates to stonewalling strategies by the bureaucracy. Aruna Roy said, "We got an impression that the bureaucracy was resisting amendments like the one on punitive clauses and the appointment of independent commissioners." In an editorial, The Times of India expressed similar sentiments. In an editorial TOI said "indications are that sections of the bureaucracy are blocking attempts to give teeth to the Act. The reasons are simple. A progressive Right to Information Act will force babus to shed their cloak of secrecy and make them accountable to the public." Though he feels that the proposals do not go far enough, TOI columnist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar endorsed the suggestion of another NGO, Centre for Civil Society, that "We need a Duty to Publish (DTP) Act rather than a Right to Information Act."

 

The latest and clearly more comprehensive critique of the Bill comes from Nirmala Lakshman writing in The Hindu. She protests, "Although the NAC¿s draft was applicable to both the Central and State governments and covers the entire country, the new Bill excludes State governments, district authorities and local bodies from its purview and restricts its scope to only the Central government and Union territories." Though eight States have already a law on right to information, Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan says that a comprehensive Central law in conjunction with State laws is necessary as there are lacunae in the State RTI laws.

 

From these averments, it is clear that the NGOs and media regard the Bill as imposing a duty on the State to disclose information sought by the public, barring certain categories. They tried to show the right to know movement as solely a struggle of the common man against a secretive state. There is nothing wrong with these perceptions except that they are only a partial representation of the truth. This isolation of the State from other agencies that have a similar stake in withholding information from the public imparts a character of incompleteness to the debate. There is only a passing reference to this in Nirmala¿s criticism of the Bill. She says, "The problem of access to information from private parties involved with big contracts such as in housing development, and other infrastructure projects would also be addressed by a comprehensive RTI Act, as at some level of project clearance government agencies would have been involved.  If the required details are not with the government, that again could be a violation of the RTI."

 

As a part of globalization, almost an irreversible process now, governments at the Centre are constantly alienating public space in favour of private agencies. With the annexation of public space, private agencies are in command of more information that is vital to the lives of the people than the State has.   The corporate private sector is a party to every big scam of the rulers  (the State) and their bureaucrats that depletes the exchequer and brings misery to large sections of the public. Also, the gradual disappearance of the line between the corporate sector and media sector and its impact on the nature of information available should have been part of the debate on the Bill. Media, with affiliation to the market, are not disinterested participants in the debate. With the rapid corporatization of the media sector, they become the voice of the corporate sector.

 

That is why the Bill should confer a right on every citizen to demand information not only from a public or state agency but also from non-governmental agencies when such information has public consequences. A number of stories that we read about corporate corruption have their origin in corporate rivalry. If corporates agree among themselves that, whatever their rivalries, they would not betray other members of their tribe, even media will be handicapped to expose their corruption. Even that minor prospect will disappear after the consummation of the corporate acquisition of all media. Being part of the corporate sector, media will exercise self-censorship to save their owners.

 

While media thus shield corporate misdeeds, they are silent on every form of corruption in their own backyards. Last month, the Andhra Pradesh Assembly witnessed a heated debate on the allotment of eight acres of prime government land in Banjara Hills in Hyderabad to four newspapers, three of them non-existent. No newspaper revealed this act of corruption involving newspapers and the government though the irregularity is as old as ten years. The late seventies saw a see saw between The Indian Express and the Delhi administration regarding an alleged encroachment of public land by the newspaper. Nearly all newspapers in Bahadurshah Zafar Marg have violated their agreement with the government by renting out surplus floors. Governments rely on media for favourable coverage and therefore overlook media corruption. Even the victims of media coverage defend newspapers when the government makes the mildest move to discipline them, all the while believing that they are defending the right to freedom of expression.

 

The Government¿s anxiety to keep corruption under wraps leads to state censorship, which cannot escape media gaze. In contrast, self-censorship by journalists and newspapers goes unreported because even NGOs working for the public cause hesitate to ruffle media feathers. Accepting a position in media now handicaps P. Sainath, who once courageously reported on media irregularities in his Countermedia. Norman Solomon of FAIR says, "It is particularly murky and insidious in the emerging media environment, with routine pressures to defer to employers that have massive industry clout and global reach. In contrast to state censorship, which is usually easy to recognize, self-censorship by journalists tends to be obscured."

 

There is not much public information available on the conflict of interest inherent in media and private economy sharing directors. For instance, there are interlocking directorates in major American newspaper chains like Gannett, The New York Times Company and Time Inc. share directors with several multinational companies. These newspapers rise to the occasion when the companies are in trouble. Indian media companies too share directors with leading corporate giants. The reader public knows little about these arrangements. They have no clue about why a simple tax problem of the Raheja group should agitate Vinod Mehta so much? Is it because the Raheja group owns The Outlook? Barring the stories that circulate in media circles but are never published, readers do not know why an editor has been shown the door. These silences amount to self-censorship.

 

News is the most important form of information that nearly everyone in the society seeks to construct a picture of the world around him/her. The entire newsgathering business is in private, mostly corporate, hands. Reuters and AP enjoy a near monopoly of gathering and distributing international news. At home, UNI and PTI are the only news agencies for a billion people. These agencies are beholden to official sources for most of their information. Most governments subsidize newsgathering operations, a factor that interferes with media¿s freedom of expression and determines the nature of information the public gets.

 

To be meaningful, the Bill will have to open all cupboards of vital information, private and public. There is no doubt that media provide the public with a lot of information that is useful in evaluating the performance of a government. We must, however, realize that beyond the state exists a vast world shrouded in secrecy and manipulation. Media do not publish all the information they come into possession of. This denial amounts to not only a waiver of freedom of expression conferred by the Constitution but also to a manipulation of public opinion. It is the duty of media columnists and the NGOs to place before the public all the dimensions of the Right to Know debate. They have not done that job for reasons they alone know.

 

Reviewing Carl Boggs¿ book The End of Politics, Catherine Chaput of the University of Arizona says, "Boggs cites the way that media in the US skews news coverage in favor of corporate interests. For example, while corporate downsizing and the elimination of middle-class jobs have been skyrocketing, "public discussion of work and joblessness in the United States has been absurdly narrow." In a second example, Boggs claims that "as corporate governmental elites agitated for increased military outlays throughout the postwar years, they simultaneously renewed their assault on `big government,` the welfare state, and public regulation" In other words, the government and its budget are cut when its programs work on behalf of the poor, working, and middle-classes, but its budgets are expanded and state intervention increased when they work on behalf of corporate wealth. In lieu of critical public debates over these issues, we are left with media sound bites that Boggs tells us "distort, perhaps even obliterate, specifically public concerns."

 

Since the activities of private economy, of the media they own and of the NGOs that are opposed to a big state affect the lives of the people, the Bill should enable the citizenry access to information of value to the public that private sources are reluctant to DIVulge. 

 

Contact: dasukrishnamoorty@hotmail.com
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