The murder case of an RTI activist that went on for eight year with many twists and turns finally came to an end this week with the sessions court in Bangalore convicting 12 people, including a former city corporator and her husband.
RTI activist Lingaraju was murdered in broad daylight on November 20, 2012. He had complained about the former corporator Gowramma CG and her husband Govindaraju in the Lokayukta court for allegedly amassing wealth illegally. The court acted on the complaint, the Lokayukta police raided their house and recovered documents relating to properties worth over Rs 16 crore.
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The duo took “revenge” against Lingaraju by hiring a private gang to kill him. While the police initially filed the investigation report within 90 days of the murder, the case dragged on as the political couple tried to use their influence to get rid of evidences and even assisted in filing false rape case against the special public prosecutor who fought the case.
The invesigation officers found that Gowramma had pawned gold jewellery with a co-operative bank for Rs 20 lakh just three days before the murder and the money was used to pay the killers.
Karnataka is among the top three states, behind Maharashtra and Gujarat, in the attack on RTI activists. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which tracks attacks on RTI activists, notes that there have been 451 attacks so far on RTI activists across the country; 87 activists have been killed ever since the Act came into force in 2005.
The turning point in the Lingaraju murder case came when the Karnataka High Court took suo-motu cognizance and ordered the state to form a Special Investigation Team to probe the incident. It also directed the state to frame guidelines to protect the activists. Despite this, the laws have not been effective in protecting those seeking information under the RTI Act.
RTI activists have been coming under attack across states and several “false cases” have been filed against them to intimidate them.
Even though the Whistleblowers Protection Act came into force in 2014, many have complained that it’s not effectively implemented. Two weeks before the murder of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, the Karnataka government had passed an order saying those in need will be given protection within a week of seeking it. Much to the dismay of activists, the order remains on paper.
Bangalore-based RTI activist AR Suresh Kumar, who’s been fighting the corrupt in various government departments, says the information commission does not even furnish details of how many people have been provided protection so far.
Kumar alleges he’s facing several “false cases” and is being made to run around courts to get the cases quashed.
“No law or government order protects RTI activists. Even the information commissioners within the state behave like police and roam around with gunmen. We don’t feel safe to step into the commission and make appeals on our RTI queries,” Suresh says.
A report submitted by National Law University, Lucknow, to the Chief Information Commission in 2019 notes that information commissions have been largely responsible for the decline in the effectiveness of RTI. “A lot of citizens are finding that if the public information officer in a government department is not providing answers, they have no recourse,” it said.
Besides, it quoted a survey by the Assessment and Analysis Group (RaaG) saying 70% of the information sought by people through RTI were information that should have already been in public domain under the proactive disclosure clauses of the RTI Act.
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While Kumar feels that those convicted in the Lingaraju’s case will appeal in the high court and Supreme Court and the case will be dragged for years, another activist in Hyderabad V V Rao says it’s a failure of the system. He says there are instances of information commissioners leaking details to the accused who, in turn, threaten those seeking the information.
“There’s no transparency even in the appointment of information commissioners. Those who question the process face false cases or threats. And not every state has adequate information commissioners,” Rao said. “The non-functioning commissions, that fail as independent regulators, give scope for ruling governments to get away by not disclosing information.”