On February 24, 2012, as Premnath Jha was riding to his home in Mumbai’s Virar area, several bullets were fired at him from a revolver. He died in hospital shortly after. Despite this, the police registered a case of accidental death. It was only when a postmortem was conducted at the insistence of his family that the authorities admitted that the Right to Information Act activist had been murdered.

Jha had been using the Right to Information, which allows citizens to request information from state and Central government departments, to seek details from the Vasai Virar Municipal Corporation about several construction projects.

The 42-year-old Jha was of the 89 RTI activists who have been killed since the Right to Information Act came into force in 2005. In that period, 172 cases of physical assault and 185 cases of threats or harassment linked to the RTI activism have been documented.

The highest number of attacks on RTI activists has occurred in Maharashtra. Since 2005, there have been 36 instances of assaults, 41 cases of harassment or threats and 16 alleged murders.

An ardous quest for justice

Jha’s case is among the stories of 13 murdered RTI activists that are documented in a recent report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative titled Life and Death in the Time of RTI: Case Studies from Maharashtra. I was involved with coordinating writers for this report.

According to the report, investigations into Jha’s death were initially conducted by Investigating officer of Virar police station. Later, the case was transferred to the Maharashtra Crime Branch. Jha’s son later moved to the Bombay High Court seeking that the investigation be transferredto an independent agency such as the Central Bureau of Investigation.

In turn, the High Court transferred the case to the state Criminal Investigation Department and asked it to file its report after four weeks. When that did not happen, the High Court in August 2014 transferred the case to the CBI.

In January 2016, four years after Jha’s murder, the CBI arrested two people for conspiring to kill him by hiring contract killers since he had sought information about their illegal construction activities. In November 2018, the CBI announced a reward of Rs 5 lakh for anyone with credible information about the culprits.

A similar pattern

The other 12 case studies from Maharashtra also show that the criminal justice system has failed to offer timely justice to the families of slain RTI activists or to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. Meanwhile, the attacks have continued.

The pattern from the limited study of 13 cases in Maharashtra appears to be that RTI users, who filed information requests in public interest or chal­lenged corruption or the abuse of power by authorities, became targets for harassment, intimidation or ultimately violence. Those who instigated or even committed these crimes largely got away.

Among the areas these RTI users sought information were corruption in cooperative societies and cooperative banks;· the manner in which building permissions were granted by municipal corporations; irregularities in the transfer of key officials in civic bodies; illegal sand mining; land-grabbing and real-estate scams involving the land mafia; and the diversion of food grains under the mid-day meal scheme meant for school children.

Free flow of information

One way of preventing attacks on RTI users would be for Public Authorities to implement Section 4 of the RTI Act effectively. This provision requires authorities of their own accord to provide all information related to government functioning and their decisions to citizens. Public authorities are required to update their websites regularly and ensure that they are not keeping any crucial information from the public.

This would help in tackling corruption and abuse of power since anybody would be able to verify data from official sources. As a consequence, activists would not be targeted for seeking information through RTI requests.

State authorities have a constitutional responsibility to respect the Right to Information of citizens, which stems from the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. The attacks on RTI users send out a message that information seekers can­ be silenced by violence. It is a strike on our fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens and in turn on the constitutional com­mitment to democratic values.

It is time for governments to translate the constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and fundamental freedoms into practical protection measures for RTI users. It must demonstrate a real commitment to taking meaningful action to investigate attacks on RTI activists and bring the per­petrators to justice. After all, the suppression of information creates misinformed citizens and threatens the very existence of our democracy.

Read Life and Death in the Time of RTI: Case Studies from Maharashtra here.

Shikha Chhibbar is Programme Officer, Access to Information, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Views are personal.