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Another right to information activist shot dead

Shehla Masood joins a dozen people killed in the last year for seeking information under India’s Right to Information Act
Shehla Masood joins a dozen people killed in the last year for seeking information under India’s Right to Information Act

A Tribute to Martyr Shehla Masood Facebook page

A woman activist who was a strong advocate of India's right to information law has been gunned down in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, making her the 13th right to information activist murdered in the past year, say Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and news reports.

Shehla Masood, who was also an environmental and anti-corruption activist, was shot dead on 16 August in front of her home as she prepared to go to a demonstration in support of jailed anti-corruption leader Anna Hazare. He has since been released from prison.

Over the past two years, Masood had been campaigning for the 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act to be better implemented. Since her death, she too has attracted a lot of attention, with nearly 1,500 supporters on a Facebook tribute page already.

The act allows Indian citizens to file requests for information to most government bodies. Through RTI requests, activists have often uncovered illicit activities, making them targets of threats and violence.

In a January 2011 visit to India, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders said that "RTI activists, who may be ordinary citizens, have increasingly been targeted for, among others, exposing human rights violations and poor governance, including corruption of officials."

Masood joins a dozen people "apparently killed last year… for seeking information under the act," says RSF.

She had reported threats to the local police as early as January 2010 but nothing was done, RSF added.

"I think it is very risky and unsafe for activists to work for civil rights in India, especially in Madhya Pradesh," RTI activist Ajay Dubey, who is also based in Bhopal, said in an interview with "The Wall Street Journal".

According to the paper, Dubey is the founding member of Prayatna, an activist group of which Masood was a member. RTI requests have been their main weapon. Dubey says that he alone has filed more than 5,000 RTI applications, on issues ranging from industrial pollution to police reforms. One particularly successful RTI request led to the closure of illegal mines in his home state, Dubey said.

Dubey told the paper that he blamed Masood's murder on the lack of state protection. "There is no provision to protect activists; this puts RTI activists in particular danger since they often collect evidence that can cause problems for corrupt officials."

Dubey and Masood had both been pressing for the state government to implement a law aimed at protecting whistleblowers. In February 2010, Masood wrote about "the need for a Whistleblower (Protection) Act in India" on her blog.

According to "The Wall Street Journal", family members and fellow activists have filed a request to the Indian government demanding the Central Bureau of Investigation, the country's top investigative body, to probe Masood's death. The request is currently under consideration.

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