Right To Know in India

The New York Times has an interesting summary today of the way that India’s groundbreaking Right to Information law has been put to use by everyday citizens. The law allows any Indian to obtain a copy of virtually any document from any level of government, under the pain of fines. Lydia Polgreen reports that most have found it helpful in redressing or forcing actions on petty specific grievances—no small feat from the individual’s point of view—but so far ineffective in forcing broader accountability or reducing endemic corruption.

In January 2009, Ralph Frammolino, a former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter now teaching in India, wrote an article for CJR that noted a similar dynamic, with the added wrinkle that India’s most prominent journalists had been slow to make use of the law.

The leading English-language newspapers and magazines—the publications that have the most influence on India’s power centers—have reported widely on the RTI law itself, but have not embraced it as an investigative tool. Reporters and editors say they simply don’t trust the information released by government officials. Narendar Pani, a former senior editor for The Economic Times and now dean of interdisciplinary studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, suggested other, less noble explanations for the “patchy” use of the law. English dailies compete for upscale urban audiences that prefer feel-good, India-rising stories to articles about government corruption. Pani said another factor is that Indian reporters are culturally attuned to work through networks of informal sources, which would dry up with “a blunt-instrument approach, which is the RTI.”

Frammolino’s full article is here.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.