The Ministry of Truth

Why journalists will not notice the defanging of the RTI Act

01 December, 2019

On 24 October, amendments made a few months earlier by the central government to the Right to Information Act, 2005 came into effect. These changes have severely compromised the independence of the commission—among other distressing alterations to the act are provisions that give the government power over deciding the tenure, salary and dismissal of information commissioners.

When the RTI Act was passed, 14 years ago, it seemed to present a powerful tool for journalism to expose malfeasance at the highest levels of government. And yet, there has been no concerted pushback from media houses about the government’s current move. It is only activists and a few opposition parties who have protested. But those who have worked in the Indian media for some time know why journalism will be minimally affected by the choke put on the act by the Narendra Modi-led government.

To understand this, it is useful to know the nature of investigative journalism in India. Historically, a form of structural censorship has been practised in Indian newsrooms. Editors do not like their reporters spending time tracking governance or pursuing a subject to its depths—something they deride as “activism or campaigning.” The newsrooms are staffed and schemed in a fashion to make sure reporters learn this lesson or fall by the wayside. Investigative journalism has been kept alive a by a handful of self-motivated journalists, who have built deep networks of sources and an understanding of the issues they want to scrutinise. This took time, sometimes years. It is often done below the radar, away from the discouraging purview of the editors pressuring the reporters to build a “healthy relationship” with those in power.

The RTI Act dropped into the lap of Indian journalism against this backdrop. It was a gift to the profession by a collective of transparency activists who worked for over a decade to see this piece of effective legislation through parliament. The act gave any Indian citizen the right to request information from any government body or department, which is required to reply within 30 days.