India: Make Government Data More Accessible to Journalists
Kannaiah Venkatesh's new association, Journalists for eGovernance and Transparency, helps reporters and freedom-of-information activists use the 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act to produce investigative stories. The association protects the identity of journalists and activists seeking information by submitting RTI requests on their behalf, critically important in the region. Ten RTI activists were killed and 28 attacked in 2010 alone, according to India Today.
Kannaiah has held two “boot camps” for 40 journalists in Bangalore and Chennai, with more planned across southern India. In these boot camps, he and RTI activists work with reporters to develop story ideas and write RTI requests. Kannaiah convinced the Express newspaper in Chennai to hire a reporter who focuses only on stories based on RTI. That reporter has trained eight colleagues to do RTI-based stories. In addition to helping journalists file their own requests, Kannaiah is putting them in touch with activists eager to share the documents received through RTI requests. Reporters are using this information for stories on corruption.
Since starting his fellowship, Kannaiah says he has seen the number of stories based on RTI requests increase from about three per week to an average of six per week in each of the three cities where he has worked: Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. One report led to a government crackdown on sweetheart deals given to public officials by a housing board. Another story revealed a government effort to hide the growing number of suicides by farmers, a serious problem in economically depressed rural India. A story on the microfinance industry uncovered exorbitant interest rates and harassment of borrowers, leading to new regulations to protect vulnerable small business owners.