MRDI was instrumental in the campaign for passing the Right to Information Act 2009. In order to ensure that the noble objectives behind passing this act get materialised, MRDI has since then invested in creating awareness about this act and familiarising people with the means to implement it and prevent irregularities or corruption. However, the people who would be key to bringing out the truth by dint of the RTI act were journalists — MRDI’s core target group.
MRDI has since then taken up several initiatives with donors as well as news outlets to provide training to enhance the capacity of journalists to use this law to their benefit. To name a few, MRDI partnered with USAID-PROGATI to run a countrywide training programme for journalists on the use of Right to Information Act in government oversight activities and investigations. In another project with the British High Commission, MRDI arranged training sessions and workshops to enhance the capacity of local journalists to carry out investigative reporting on financial transparency and accountability to fight corruption.
In order to help journalists get a taste of what it is like to prepare investigative reports using RTI as a tools, the World Bank Institute and MRDI partnered up and trained four journalists from reputed daily newspapers of Bangladesh under supervision of international experts. The trainee journalists were assigned to follow the procedures of acquiring information via respective government representatives or ministries and produced stories. The common concerns and roadblocks journalists faced while following the steps of getting their hands on the information they desire include bureaucratic red tape, lack of transparency, unwillingness to share information, wastage of time in roundabout procedures and the pressure of regular assignments that the journalists had to complete even while working on an investigative report.
Under this initiative, the journalists were assigned to mentors who would assist them in using the RTI tool. They were also guided by an Indian journalist, Saikat Datta who has himself had first-hand experience of conducting investigations using the RTI Act in India. They also had the opportunity to learn from RTI expert and journalist, Ralph Frammolino. The journalists had expressed their thoughts in detail after using RTI tools to collect data for their investigative reports.
Although it was passed in the parliament, many senior government officials were not aware of the RTI Act, which was why some had been less forthcoming in their efforts to help the journalists with information which resulted in loss of precious time. Another sensitive and more serious issue that the journalists raised was that RTI exhausted future possibilities of unofficial cooperation from the civil servants concerned. An RTI application is somehow considered an affront and suggests that the officials concerned are not being forthcoming. Such a public event appears to embarrass them, which also precludes future cooperation or completely shuts down available sources of information, which is often how journalists get most of their information. Hence many journalists remain reluctant to file an RTI fearing that might antagonise even the friendly officials who provide information anonymously. Further, since the application is public, other reporters also get wind of the investigation and can sometimes acquire the same information unofficially and publish a report long before the RTI application bears fruit.
However, journalists agree that RTI would, in the long run, change the culture of secrecy, especially when it concerns public information and contribute towards a more transparent and democratic government. They say that information is key for journalism and point towards large scale investigations. They say that the ability to ask for and acquire information gives immense power to the citizens and journalists as well.
Hasibur Rahman, MRDI executive director, says that it is like a seed you sow. “This is not going to yield fruit in a day or two. But it will bear fruit in a month or two. That information by itself may not be the story, but it provides for a solid basis of future investigations.”