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Asia

Indian "information warriors" protest against killings

Civil society groups in India have been protesting against the targeting of people who use potent transparency laws to expose corruption. Eight so-called "right-to-information" activists have been killed in a year.

Right-to-information activists recently took to the streets of Delhi

Right-to-information activists recently took to the streets of Delhi

Last month, Amit Jethwa, a prominent environmentalist and information warrior, was shot dead by two unidentified gunmen just opposite the Gujarat High Court in the western city of Ahmedabad.

Just a few days earlier, he had filed a public interest petition at the same court. The petition named a prominent politician as one of the many interested parties involved in illegal mining activities in the protected Gir Forest.

Another activist, Satish Shetty, was killed by unidentified men earlier this year. He had shot to fame after exposing certain corrupt land deals related to the country's first expressway from Mumbai to Pune.

Eight deaths, 20 serious attacks

In total, there have been eight deaths and over 20 serious attacks in the past year alone. They have brought into sharp focus the obstacles hindering the successful implementation of India's landmark Right to Information Act that is supposed to expose corruption in the government and came into existence in October 2005.

The national transparency watchdog, the Central Information Commission (CIC), admitted that there was cause for concern.

"The RTI Act is now beginning to bite," said Wajahat Habibullah, the chief information commissioner. "It had a bite earlier but it is now beginning to bite into vested interests also. And the vested interests will spare no effort and have no compunction in using excessive measures to try and crush activism."

Wajahat Habibullah, the Chief Information Commissioner of India

Wajahat Habibullah, the Chief Information Commissioner of India

Before the law was passed, citizens and activists found it difficult to obtain information from federal and state authorities.

Powerful tool for exposing corruption

In its five years of existence, the Right to Information Act has become a powerful tool that has been used to expose the connections between corrupt officials, politicians and even the mafia.

Sensitive information, which the bureaucrats and political establishment would prefer kept outside the public domain so as to protect their own interests, has started coming out.

So there has been a backlash, says Shekhar Singh, the convener of the National Council for People's Right to Information or NCPRI.

Activists say they need to work collectively to avoid being targeted individually

Activists say they need to work collectively to avoid being targeted individually

"It is of course sad and unfortunate but also inevitable because once you have a law as powerful as the RTI, it is only worthwhile if it ruffles vested interests," he said. "Vested interests have a history not only in this country but the world over of fighting back. So what we have to do is build up strategies which protect our activists."

Activists need to work together

Vinita Singh, who has made use of the Right to Information Act in Mumbai and Delhi, said that there needed to be solidarity between activists who should work together if they were to avoid life-threatening situations.

"RTI activism is often done at an individual level, you get information, try to figure out what to do with it. We work as lonesome information warriors. We need networks, we need to act collectively or at least find people who are related to it. I think the more we do that, the better are our chances of making an impact and also working in a way that will not harm individual people."

Individuals have been using the Right of Information Act as a weapon to expose corruption. However, the government does not seem to be fulfilling its part of the deal, which is to bring culprits to book or give protection to whistleblowers.

Author: Murali Krishnan (New Delhi)
Editor: Anne Thomas

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