Freedom of expression, unrestricted propagation of ideas and ready access to information are essential for the functioning of a democratic government. If people are unaware of what is happening in their society or if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, then they are prevented from taking a significant part in the affairs of the society. Access to information not only facilitates active participation of the people in the democratic governance process, but also promotes openness, transparency and accountability in administration. It is thus a crucial facilitator of good governance, as it reflects and captures Government activities and processes. In the same light, the right of every citizen to access information held by or under the control of public authorities, has been as effective tool for ushering in good governance.
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The Indian Parliament enacted the Freedom of Information Act, 2002, to promote transparency and accountability in administration. This was subsequently repealed and later a new act, The Right to Information Act, came into force on 12 October 2005. Under the law the Indian citizens are empowered to seek information from a Public Authority, thus making the Government and its functionaries more accountable and responsible. The Act has now been in operation for over three years and has benefited many, including the poor and the underprivileged. The many provisions of the Act mandate a legal-institutional framework for setting out the practical regime of right to information for every citizen to secure access to information under the control of public authorities.
Participation, rule of law, transparency, responsiveness, equity and inclusiveness, effectiveness, efficiency, accountability, strategic vision and consensus-orientation are the major characteristics of good governance. Transparency refers to decisions being taken openly and being enforced according to rules and regulations. It mandates that information should be freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions and their enforcement. It also means that enough information is provided to all the stakeholders and the media, in easily understandable forms to enable their meaningful participation in the decision making processes and criticism of the same. Accountability ensures that public institutions and functionaries are answerable to the people and to their institutional stakeholders i.e. those who will be affected by its decisions or actions. Accountability cannot be enforced without a regime of transparency.
We discussed the factors contributing to good governance. Herein, it is pertinent to mention that a direct relationship exists between right to Information, informed citizenry and good governance. On one hand good governance aims at putting an end to inconsistent government practices and establishing a responsive State, the Right to Information provides citizens the opportunity of being informed of the Governments actions. Public participation in Government, respect for the rule of law, freedom of expression and association, transparency and accountability, legitimacy of Government, and the like, which are the core values of good governance, can be realised only if the right to information is implemented in the right spirit.
The role of media organisations assumes considerable importance in realising the objectives of the RTI Act. The media can not only play an important role in monitoring public service delivery by invoking provisions under the RTI Act, but can also facilitate in generating awareness and capacity building on RTI among the community. Thus the media performs an important role in the governance process by acting as a bridge between the community and public agencies.
The media can make a real difference to the lives of poor and disadvantaged people and aid in development by making people more aware of their rights and entitlements and enabling them to have access to government programmes, schemes and benefits. Besides people can be made more aware of political issues which would help to stimulate critical thinking and debate. This creates pressure for improved government performance, accountability and quality. The media also helps in drawing attention to institutional failings – corruption, fraud, waste, inefficiency, cronyism, nepotism, abuse of power and the like. It fosters exchange of best practices, knowledge resources, access to better technology, and to better choices. A discursive space for citizens to dialogue with other actors in the governance process is also provided by the media.
Empowerment, social awareness & action and good governance are the three key areas through which the media can make a significant impact on development and poverty reduction. Firstly, the media gives voice to the needs and aspirations of the people and provides them access to relevant information. Thus, it cannot be denied that the media has a definite role to play in the empowerment of citizens. In all its varied forms, media has opened up the potential for new forms of participation. The access to information and accessibility of information has increased with growth of print and electronic media and the Internet. In contemporary times, the media is being used even by the vulnerable and marginalized sections of the society to make their voices heard. Secondly, the media can be effective not only in preserving freedom but also in extending it. The news media plays a decisive role in establishing a discursive space for public deliberations over social issues. The formative influence of the media on public attitudes, thoughts and perceptions is fundamental to the process of citizen engagement in public dialogue. Giving a voice to the poor also entails giving the poor people adequate opportunities to take initiatives for overcoming their problems. The media, through its role in shaping public awareness and action, can be a critical factor in facilitating sustainable development and poverty reduction. Lastly, a free media is a necessary requisite for good governance. As an information channel between corporations, government, and the populace, the media acts as a watchdog against government malfeasance, while at the same time fosters greater transparency and accountability. The media monitors public service delivery and reports on key issues to the public at large, thereby exerting pressure on public service providers. The media creates the right framework of incentives for good governance, by highlighting institutional failings to guard against as well as institutional successes for replication. It lets people voice diverse opinions on governance and reform, exposes corruption and malpractices and helps build public consensus to bring about change.
The World Association of Newspapers (WAN), the global organisation of the world’s press has long argued that a free and unfettered press is a positive force for accelerated and equitable socio-economic development. It held that the predominance of free and independent press accompanies economic growth and human development. In countries with free press, human development indicators such as school enrolment, teacher-pupil ratio, pupil performance, infant mortality, maternal mortality, nutritional status of women and children etc. tend to fare better than countries with restrictions on press and freedom of information. The work of the Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen has even established a link between active media and the avoidance of disasters like famines. The role of media as a watchdog of the government and the corporate sector, a transmitter of new ideas and information, a voice of the poor, a safeguard against the abuse of power and neglect of the socially vulnerable, and a builder of public consensus to bring about change is pervasive.
However, the independence of the media can be fragile and easily compromised. It is clear that to support development, the media needs the right environment in terms of freedoms, capacities, and checks and balances. The Right to Information regime does give the media that critical support.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The above provision only reiterates the fact that the mass media is the most important vehicle for information, knowledge and communication in a democratic polity. They are pervasive and play a significant role in shaping societies by providing the public sphere of information and debate that enables social and cultural discourse, participation and accountability. Being the most accessible, cost-effective and widespread source of information and platform for expression the media plays a crucial role in building an inclusive Information Society based on knowledge power and its distribution.
However to ensure that the potential of the media is truly achieved steps should be taken to protect and extend media freedom and independence, and rights of access to information by actively developing the potential of media to provide information along with a forum for debate on topics of public interest, cultural expression and opportunity to communicate, especially to the poor and marginalised. Strengthening the capacity of media should be facilitated, to promote and help build an Information Society by raising awareness, channelling civil society concerns, debating policies and holding government, private sector and civil society accountable.
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An RTI regime can enable credible, evidence-based and factual reporting on key issues of public interest. It can enable the media to expose mal-administration, corruption and inefficiency and to propagate stories and instances relating to accountability, transparency, effective administration and good governance. By using the RTI Act, the media can play an important role in highlighting issues related to public service delivery and the efficacy and accountability of public officials. Under the RTI Act, the journalists & reporters, like citizens, can:
Demand from the Government information pertaining to any of its departments
Demand photocopies of Government contracts, payment, estimates, measurements of engineering works etc.
Demand from the Government certified samples of material used in the construction of roads, drains, buildings etc.
Demand to inspect any public development work that may be still under construction or completed
Demand to inspect Government documents – construction drawings, records books, registers, quality control reports etc.
Demand status of requests or complaints, details of time delays, action taken on Information Commission’s decisions etc.
The media thus can play a constructive role in the governance process by acting as a catalyzing agent for the implementation of the core provisions of the Act. As the ‘fourth pillar of democracy’, the media not only has an important stake in what the RTI Act purports to provide and achieve, but also in entrenching the implementation and enforcement of this significant piece of legislation. Besides, fundamentally the media aids in providing information to the citizens and building awareness among the masses on the Act. Despite the provisions that have been made to access information, citizens resort to media like newspapers, radio, television etc. for day to day information about public authorities and their activities. The media provides a link between the citizens and their government. The media’s right to information or right to tell is not a special privilege but rather, an aspect of the public’s right to know. It thereby gives voice to the Citizens. As part of the civil society, the media is obligated to articulate the needs and aspirations of the people. Using the Act, the media can highlight key issues faced by the citizens, particularly those faced by the poor and voiceless. The role of the media as a watchdog on behalf of the citizens cannot be ignored. The best service that the media provides to the public, whether in a mature or emerging democracy, is that of a community watchdog. Journalists should see and perform their role keeping in mind public interest. Using RTI, the media can expose corruption and inefficiency. However, in performing a watchdog role and digging out the truth, journalists should be careful in interpreting facts and evidence.
The multi-dimensional facets of the importance of the media reiterate that the media plays the role of an honest broker of information for its readers without deliberate bias or favouritism. The media must consider its independence to be its most valuable commercial, editorial and moral asset. Maintaining its independence through professional behaviour and a code of conduct that is subscribed to by all journalists, the media can be a powerful user of the RTI Act and an agent for the empowerment of people through an Information Society. The objective of the Act to usher in a practical regime of right to information cannot be attained without a proactive role played by the media.
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