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Book Review: Journalism through RTI

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For more than twelve years now, Right to Information (RTI) act 2005 has been making a big splash in various socio-political scenarios in India. From activism to advocacy, peoples’ movements to individualistic assertion of rights, legal profession to research, RTI act has impacted the culture of accountability, transparency and rights in a big way. However, one area where RTI act was expected to make a big difference but somehow didn’t so much was journalism. Journalism as the profession of collecting and disseminating information was naturally predisposed to exploit this act which has significantly altered the access to information in the country. Never before has there been a single source of authentic and verified information available to people, especially journalists.

It is not as though journalists have not used RTI act but the trend of them using the act for their own stories is relatively very deficient when compared to media covering stories being broken due to the act being used by others such as activists and RTI users. There are exceptions of course. One of such exceptions is Shyamlal Yadav, the senior editor of The Indian Express. Yadav is someone who has made a huge name by using the RTI act for his stories. He has broken extremely significant stories using the RTI act over the years which have impacted upon the policy formulation, implementation and also accountability in general.

Through his stellar record of pursuing news stories through RTI act, Yadav has accumulated such a vast body of work and experience that he has been able to render it all in a book called Journalism through RTI: Information Investigation Impact, published in 2017 by Sage Publications. As is evident from the subtitle of the book itself, it intends to be about three main facets of journalism pursued through the use of RTI act, which are information, investigation and impact.

The book is a collection of chapters which are both thematic in nature and also based on experiences of pursuing particular stories. Yet there is a common thread running through all of them. Except for the first chapter which talks about advent of RTI in India and the international and national context in which the demand generation and eventually materialisation of RTI took place, all the other chapters are about specific news stories pursued by Yadav through the RTI act.

Written in a fluid narrative, the chapters are more like accounts of how news stories that are illustrated there, came about. They usually begin from the initial hunch or idea or inspiration with which Yadav began to conceptualise the idea, then proceeds to how the story was envisioned through the use of RTI act and eventually how it came about after the information was obtained or not obtained, as the case may be. It’s almost like going through a journalist’s journal as to what all transpires between the sowing of an idea for a news story and reaping it when it is ready. Keeping with the theme as described in the subtitle of the book, the chapters proceed from the information stage to the investigation stage and eventually to what the impact of the story was.

Most of the stories narrated in this book are from the era of United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-I and II rule. The stories revolve around the themes of transparency in political and bureaucratic circles, accountability of the elected representatives and bureaucrats, illumination of the way public exchequers are burdened and the way public authorities (mal)function. All these themes can be understood as those which suggest the beginning of the coming down of the wall that stood between people and the information that they rightly deserve and the role that journalism can play in this. Both the aspects i.e. the breaking down of the walls between people and the information and the role of journalism are qua RTI act in a major way.

However, the stories are not just about successes. They also reveal the mindset of bureaucracy and elected representatives who heavily favour opaqueness and therefore try to derail this process of opening up of the vault of information. In more than one chapters, Yadav illustrates how bureaucracy comes up with novel ways to avoid giving information, many a times misusing the very clauses of the act that are meant for opening up of information channels for the public in their interest.

The stories are themselves revealed in the process of Yadav’s narration as to how he conceptualised them and went about investigating and writing them. He also lays out examples of how the stories led to changes in the functioning of the government or the system in general. Eventually he finishes the book by laying out helpful tips for journalists to use the RTI act for obtaining information for their news stories.

Even though the book is not an academic pursuit, it still becomes an important instructive text for journalists today. In today’s times investigative journalism is facing two kinds of crisis; firstly, that the trend of investigative journalism is on a decline and secondly that which is often called investigative journalism today is only one component of it which in general terms can be called espionage. Even espionage or spying based journalism today has been reduced to catching a few individuals off guard saying something objectionable or at the most self-incriminating. These admissions are not woven into larger patterns of systemic or structural shortcomings or malpractices.

In such a scenario this book brings back the focus on investigative journalism in all its aspects by using one of the most important weapons against opaqueness, corruption, malpractices or unaccountability, which is facts from the government sources themselves which cannot be contested. As Yadav’s work shows the data that he obtains can be used not only to cast light upon many pressing issues but can also be used to work out larger journalistic narratives about various issues often putting them in perspective of other contrasting issues through persistent and prolific field work. In doing so he also shows that obtaining information through the RTI act is only half the battle won. Using that information and data to tell important stories of our times and making them relevant is the real journalistic pursuit. 

-Sumit

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