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India's corruption whistleblowers face threats
India Correspondent Richard Lindell on India's 'right to information' laws.

India's right to information laws have proved a highly effective tool in fighting corruption.

In the six years since the laws were enacted, the legislation has helped expose wrong doing from the village level all the way to the top of India's national government.

But the whistleblowers who expose corruption have themselves become targets, routinely threatened and even murdered.

India correspondent Richard Lindell reports.
RICHARD LINDELL, REPORTER: She was a fierce anti-corruption campaigner who won acclaim for taking on the establishment. But Shehla Masood also knew her high profile work came with risks.

Her cousin, Rajil Masood, has kept some of the many petitions she filed under India's right to information laws aimed at exposing corruption in the government, judiciary and the police. Petitions he says his cousin was warned to withdraw.

RAJIL MASOOD, SHEHLA'S COUSIN: He threatened her on phone, on telephone. And he wanted her to take all her petitions back, RTIs (Right to Information) back, actually.

RICHARD LINDELL: On the morning of 16 August last year, Shehla Masood was brutally murdered outside her home. She was 38-years-old.

Her father blames the people she exposed.

SULTAN MASOOD, FATHER: For the sake of honesty, for the sake of justice, to make the environment clear. And for that reasons she has sacrificed her life. These people have taken the life of my daughter.

RICHARD LINDELL: Sultan Masood found his daughter slumped over the front wheel of her car a bullet wounds to her throat.

SULTAN MASOOD: I have thrown the water upon her, then I saw that somebody has shot her.

RICHARD LINDELL: Six months after her murder, Sultan Masood continues to fight for justice, but he has no faith in the police.

SULTAN MASOOD: So far as the police is concerned ... very, very, very sorrowful state of affairs in the police. Most dishonest. Most coward.

RICHARD LINDELL: The police first tried to say it was suicide and then blamed the family, calling it an honour killing.

SUHAS CHAKMA, DIRECTOR, ASIAN CENTRE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: In all the cases of murder of the RTI activists, it is fair to say that there are government officials in involved. There are politicians involved and who can pull strings on the police. And the police really tend to divert attention from the real issues by raising, you know, unrelated issues. And it basically hampers the investigation of the cases.

RICHARD LINDELL: The central bureau of investigation took over the Masood case from local police and on Thursday claimed to have finally made a breakthrough. Police arrested two people, but say the motive for the killing is still unclear.

Shehla Masood was murdered on the way to one of the anti-corruption rallies lead by activist Anna Hazare that galvanised the middle class against government inaction. The timing of her murder brought her case to national attention.

But this was not an isolated incident. At least 11 other right to information activists were killed last year, and in only one case have charges been laid.

Suhas Chakma is the director of the Asian Centre For Human Rights. He says the murders of many more RTI activists go unreported because most of the violence happens in villages and small towns.

SUHAS CHAKMA: The threat becomes more if the lower level officials are involved, because at a senior level, officials are much more concerned in terms of the repercussions it will have. But at the lower level, where you are dealing with the officials as well as with the mafia, the contractors, the private interests and the government interests are involved, in those situations threats are quite high.

RICHARD LINDELL: The Right to Information Act was introduced in 2005. It has perhaps been most effective in small towns and villages. But it has also helped reveal criminality at the highest levels of government, including corruption of the Commonwealth Games and a $40 billion mobile phone scandal that's landed the former telecom's minister in jail.

RAAJ PRASAD, RTI ACTIVIST: Because of this Act, because of this law, the common man, every citizen of the country, has got it, a tool, to bring information in public domain.

So what has happened in the last couple of years, I would say, that it has become a very revolutionary kind of instrument for bringing about change and putting more pressure for transparency and accountability in the governments.

RICHARD LINDELL: Raaj Prasad has used RTI petitions to expose corruption in orphanages. His work has brought several cases to the court.

But Raaj Prasad says he, like many activists, work under extreme pressure.

RAAJ PRASAD: They've offered all kinds of packages, like, you know, even the government, secretary level officers have said that, you know, you are running an NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation), you are needing crown, you should come to us we'll give you whatever money you want. Obviously they were hinting that I should keep quiet and not raise voice against corruption in which they were involved.

And threat, yes, not direct ones, but there have been a lot of campaigns against the character assassination, baseless allegations against me, my family, my organisation.

RICHARD LINDELL: RTI activists receive no special protection under the Act. The government says there are already adequate safeguards in existing criminal laws.

RAAJ PRASAD: They are helping the corrupt. That's why it's become so a big challenge. So people, the activists, are at the receiving end. They're not getting support from the state apparatus. So the fight becomes very, you know, difficult for them.
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