The journalist who built his career through RTI law Listen
ISLAMABAD: In April 2007, the editor of India Today circulated an email to his reporters. He wanted each of them to submit at least three story ideas that could be investigated by using Right to information law. Shyamlal Yadav was among the recipients.
Little he knew about the India’s RTI law which was only two-year-old then. Nevertheless, he filed three-story proposals to the much liking of his editor. “You should focus on those stories that can be explored through RTI,” the editor commented after reading his proposals.
This is how he started using RTI law. Shyamlal changed the newspaper switching from India Today to The Indian Express but his routine remains the same. He files the information requests to various departments as he comes to office, gathers update on the pending applications and follows up the received information through field visits. There are more than 7,000 RTI requests on his credit by now.
I had a chance to meet him last week at Global Investigative Journalism Conference held in Johannesburg (South Africa). There he showed me the book documenting his work: Journalism through RTI. In it, he chronicles the history of this transparency law in India, the big stories he did use this legislation and the impact which was subsequently generated.
Reading his book is a fascinating experience. It inspires journalists into using this law if they are interested in agenda-free journalism. That RTI law rid the reporters of unnecessary exploitation of sources is another point worth pondering. It generally happens that those sharing the information tend to have their own interests in highlighting it. Anything beyond that is concealed.
Discrimination is also noted in the dissemination of information. Senior journalists working with big media houses are the most likely recipients. The RTI law democratises the flow of information. Any citizen of a country, no matter journalist or not, can apply for the details which he is entitled to request under this legislation.
Another highlight of Shyamlal’s experience is that there is no easy way of information gathering. One has to struggle hard even if the RTI law is used. The details collected through official channels make them more credible than the leaked information. Denying its own documents isn’t an option for the government.
He is a practical example of what a journalist has to do during the course of digging through the RTI law. Collecting information about the foreign visits of federal ministers was one of the three proposals he had submitted when the editor of India Today had sought the story ideas in 2007.
It took him to file 59 RTI applications for gathering the travel details of top politicians and government officers. He wrote to the prime minister office, the cabinet secretariat and various ministries. The story produced on the basis of this information was headlined: ‘Frequent Fliers.’ Other newspapers and channels picked it up within no time forcing the prime minister to direct his ministers to curtail their foreign visits. This was his first-ever story done through the RTI law. From then on, he built up his career as a journalist relentlessly using this law for investigative reporting.
His curiosity to inquire about the quality of water flowing through Indian rivers took him to file 39 applications with different departments and more than one year wait. He did several stories about corruption in bureaucracy and bad governance at the expense of the public.
In 2016, Shyamlal, came to know about the problems in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Jan-Dhan scheme which was aimed at ensuring access to financial services like bank accounts. This scheme didn’t turn out to be successful. Many Indians who opened accounts had zero balance. The bankers were instructed to deposit a rupee each in such accounts. The intended objective was to bring down the number of accounts with zero balance.
Shyamlal filed a score of applications with different banks to obtain break-up of the accounts with balance ranging from zero to less than one rupee to ten rupee and above. As the information started pouring in, he thought to opt for the field visits in order to check with the account holders. Many of them whose balance was one rupee told him they had never deposited a penny. In September 2016, he did an elaborate story on how banks were under instruction to fudge the figures by making small deposits into the accounts opened under the prime minister scheme.
He doesn’t keep anybody in illusion about the reporting through the RTI law as doing so requires time, energy and patience. “RTI has taken me through a protracted, time-consuming and often frustrating journey, which after all makes for interesting reading,” he explains in the book.
Shyamlal has been known to me since 2011 when we met in Kiev (Ukraine). Even then, Global Investigative Journalism Conference had brought us together. He has a pioneering role in making the RTI law effective. Practicing it means enforcing this law. Also, credit goes to his newspaper management for promoting the RTI-backed reporting.
Let me admit: If Shyamlal came to know about RTI law through his editor, I first heard about RTI from my publisher/editor-in-chief who is very passionate about it. Any story done using this law or an issue relating to RTI gets better coverage in Jang Group than in any other media house. Many journalists from this group have won the RTI Champion Award.
The reason is obvious: Journalists of this organisation are encouraged to exercise this law and they do it quite often.