A government wrapped in secrecy

[ Tongam Rina ]
As a student of communication, flow of information and making sure that communication channels are open, no matter how difficult the circumstances, is my priority and lifeline.
Who likes a 6 am phone call? Not me. Who likes intrusive WhatsApp calls asking why one is online but still not taking calls? Not me.
Yours truly dreads phone calls, but the job profile is such that phone calls can’t be ignored unless it’s from immediate family members, friends, the doctor, my PhD guide, or my boss.
Phones are intrusive, but for a journalist it’s one of the main sources of information. I can’t do without it even though I want to throw it away most days.
There was a time when my boss, colleagues and I had to meet every day for editorial meetings. Now we spare each other the everyday annoyance of meeting, thanks to technology. But we still meet because it is important to meet in person. Angry exchanges and apologies are routine in newsrooms.
Meeting in person is something technology can’t compensate for, and it never will. One may say that we are old-fashioned, but we value face-to-face interaction, so we still have editorial meetings, if not every day.
Technology has progressed so much that we need not meet people to write a 500-word report. But the problem is that the scope is limited. How is one supposed to write something meaningful unless one has met the source of information? Logging on to social media is the short-cut, but it almost always contains one-sided information. That is something this daily can’t afford to do, though there are times when we copy-paste information posted on social media by newsmakers because there is no other way of getting information.
Though, unlike his predecessors, Chief Minister Pema Khandu in his four years has not sued this daily or threatened to sue it verbally or otherwise, this government is one that is wrapped in secrecy. The entire machinery is such that it’s difficult to get information. Almost everyone in the government is silent. One wonders whether they are following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mantra of not calling a press conference or responding to questions.
While the PM remains mute, the government of Arunachal has mostly stayed away from face-to-face meetings with reporters. All it does is send press releases. There is no scope for asking questions because they are press handouts, and I for one don’t know who to approach for cross-checking information contained in these press handouts.
The government has reduced the newspapers to being its spokespersons by not being available for questioning. I guess any person interested in governance and the wellbeing of the working of the system would be interested in knowing what is happening. Among a lot of this and that, the essence of democracy is sharing information, being accountable, and being accessible.
I am faced with a problem shared by other journalists. Getting information in Arunachal is a Herculean task. Let me tell you of some of my recent experiences.
Since getting information is so difficult, I use the provision of the Right to Information Act. The forest department definitely is a winner when it comes to not responding to direct questions. I used the proper RTI Act format last year to seek responses about the activities under the CAMPA. In response, I got the annual operating plans. The bulky bunch is still sitting on my table. It’s a reminder how bulky and useless papers filled with information is. The forest department, like all other departments, has perfected the art of evading questions. This is how departments evade questions: just dump bulky papers with no information. This daily pays for the cost of the information furnished. In reality, we pay for just the papers because there is no information whatsoever.
The officers at the top are the ones reluctant to share information, perhaps at the direction of their political bosses, or maybe the governance has been handed over to the officers. I am not too sure because one is not too sure who is boss.
Some 20 children were smuggled from Arunachal to Bangalore recently, but then they were refugee children, so obviously not of interest to anyone. While I was filing a report, I sent a text to the secretary of the WCD. I was directed to talk to junior officers.
Apparently, the phone network was not working. Blame the network. Nice way to pass the buck. I don’t remember if I called the officers at all as the head of the department herself was reluctant to give information and take responsibility. I would not want to put field officers in trouble, so likely I did not call them.
Recently, I sought information from the Itanagar police. I was told to go to the court to collect the information – the same information that the police have submitted to the court. The matter is sub judice, I was told. A very convenient way of passing the buck.
Am I scared of the police? Yes. You never know what they are upto. But this is no admission that I don’t have regard for policemen/policewomen who value citizens and their safety. I do. I know under what trying circumstances they work.
On Monday, I made a report on compensation amounts not paid and jobs not given, even though they had been announced by the government for the families who lost their loved ones in the Tirap massacre.
Six phone calls later, there was no headway, so I called someone in the government who I trust as someone who will not share information but will direct me to someone who has the information.
The phone calls and messages elicited no response – very typical of the Pema Khandu government.
On Tuesday morning, long after the paper had been dispatched and the contents uploaded on social media and our website, I got to know that there is no government spokesperson. This is the level of respect accorded to the importance of information. Who do I call? No one. Who do I call if I need information or if I need to cross-check and seek further information on government handouts? That says a lot about how sincere the government is about sharing information.
Politicians mostly won’t open their mouths but forward questions to their bureaucrats, who are scared to share information. When the cluelessness of politicians and the reluctance of the bureaucracy combine, it sure is a statement on inefficiency and misuse of positions and power. Information needs to be given, even when it’s not asked for. Here even if one asks, there is dead silence.
Ideally, the government should have monthly and bimonthly press conferences. When was the last time the chief minister, the deputy chief minister and the bosses of the police or the bureaucracy had a press conference? If these people are too busy, at least their spokespersons can organise one. One may disregard the regular media or even say that its time is up, but there are people and journalists who are keen to know more than what is being handed out. Unless one is scared of sharing information, or there is something to hide, there is no reason why they should not take questions from the media.
Dear readers, how many of you in social media have got a response to your questions posed to the CM, the DCM, the DGP or the CS? Apparently, they have all the time to respond to celebrities who are paid to come to Arunachal, or to wish a political bigwig on their birthday, but for ordinary citizens even social media is out of bounds for those seeking information or help.
Even on social media the flow of information is one-way. It’s always their way, not yours and mine. Apparently, they are here to serve us! The joke is on us who won’t ask for accountability. Who cares, as long as we get to enjoy the picnics and winter festivals.