Known popularly in the media circles as RTI maverick, Afroz Alam Sahil is a RTI journalist and a social activist who has investigated and brought to light many facts related to high-profile cases. He has exposed many underhand dealings and funding irregularities of many organizations and personalities. His expose of Dow Chemicals, Bhopal Gas Tragedy and Batla House encounter has opened many a Pandora box that has revealed startling information that was hidden from the public.
What prompted you to become a journalist?
I come from an ordinary middle class family in Champaran, Bihar. Right from the time when I was young, I noticed that people were always happy to talk to a journalist because they want the truth to come out in the open. I realized this even when I was young in school. My family wanted me to become an engineer after I passed 12th standard. I wrote the engineering entrance exams and got selected. Thankfully my friend told me to apply for the mass media degree in Jamia as a second option. I wrote the exam and got selected too. I had the acceptance letters from many colleges for an engineering course but I couldn’t bring myself to accept it as my heart wanted to pursue journalism. I told my elder brother about it and he stood by me and convinced my parents.
What was the first lesson you learnt as a journalist?
In the first year of college, I came across a book on the Right to Information Act. It was a life-changing experience because that’s when I realized that if there were an act like this in India it would be difficult to hide the truth. I started researching more about it and found that many people were already campaigning to pass the RTI act in India. I learned that RTI is a very powerful tool that could be used to bring the truth to the people. In 2006 (while still in my first year of college) I participated in the Drive against Bribe RTI campaigns by Parivartan along with Arvind Kejrival, Manish Sisodia and many others. This opened the future path for me in many ways. I got an opportunity to write in mainstream media about this campaign and more than 1000 letters to the editor (Hindi and Urdu Vernacular newspapers).
Beyondheadlines is an online news-portal that you have started recently. What are the lessons you have learned from this venture?
I left a well-paid job in TV9 as a RTI journalist to start Beyondheadlines.in. I started this because I had learned that until I was working for someone else, it would be difficult to expose the truth. I felt that I was not helping anybody and was rather becoming a part of the system that systematically suppressed news. I wanted to create an alternative system and report news that is not being covered otherwise by other media due to political pressure. Most often, mainstream media rejects most of the news items saying, ‘public does not want to know/read this’ but when I publish the same on our website I get an overwhelming response. This justifies the existence of alternative media like Beyondheadlines as we want to focus on news that mainstream media is rejecting for various reasons. I have learned that there is enough power in the media to help people in many positive ways. I hope to achieve that with Beyondheadlines.
You are known as the RTI maverick with over 5000+ RTI applications to your name. After exposing the truth in many high-profile cases, what have you learned from this experience?
I have filed RTI petitions for many cases and at that point I didn’t know that they would become so high-profile. Batla House, Baba Ramdev, Godhra, Lokpal, Political funding for Nitish Kumar and many such RTI were petitioned for. My involvement in exposing the truth behind the Batla House case garnered more national attention towards my work. I have since learned that small things that you do can lead to a big transformation in the system. My passion for RTI stems from the belief that right to know is as important as right to live.
Everybody is aware of the corruption in the system and to a large degree it is we who have contributed to it. We do not hesitate to bribe a government official to get our ration card while we should have systems in place that ought to work without resorting to such measures. It is my firm belief that using RTI as a tool, we can bring about a revolution in countering corruption and establish accountability and transparency. For instance, a poor Rickshaw puller in Bihar, Mazloom Nadaf got his house under Indira Awas Yojna because of the RTI act.
That is the power of RTI. It can expose high-level corruption like DOW Chemicals case and fake encounters of Batla House and also help poor uneducated people to know their rights.
You have worked with many renowned activists so far. Share the lessons you have learned from them?
Corruption is everywhere. I have worked with many activists on many RTI campaigns. I have found it very disheartening to learn that most of them are only after funds and those who campaign for accountability and transparency are reluctant to declare their own sources of funds.
As a RTI journalist, I had filed petitions under the RTI act to organizations of Shri Anna Hazare (Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan Nyas), Shri Arvind Kejriwal (Public Cause Research Foundation) and Shri Manish Sisodia (Kabir) way back in 2009 hoping that they would be happy to release the information as they are the ones who are campaigning for accountability and transparency. Sadly there were half-hearted replies and responses that the information was already posted in their website (but it was not). When people who campaign for the right to information are not forthcoming with their funding sources then how can you expect the corrupt bureaucrats and government officials to come forward with information?
Tell us more about INSAAN Foundation and the campaigns you have spearheaded through this organization.
Through the course of my career as a RTI journalist I have learned many valuable lessons. If you wish to run a media company you must either know how to blackmail people or have a group of fraudsters to help or have corporate and political funding. Having realized this, I felt that we need an organization that would campaign for the ordinary man and raise awareness for his rights. INSAAN aims to do just that. With transparent accountability and no corporate or government funding of any sort we have spearheaded many medical campaigns and have helped genuine people in need.
As a journalist and an activist, what are the valuable lessons you have learned in life?
I have learned that media is a very important tool. It can be used very powerfully. We talk about corruption in all areas but we are the ones who are spreading it. For many, media has become a mere business and those who have a genuine passion for it are forced to compromise. This needs to change and I am hoping that the little things that I am doing might add some value and bring about a transformation.
Connect with Afroz Sahil here -
News Portal – http://beyondheadlines.in/
INSAAN Foundation – http://insaanfoundation.org/
Facebook Profile – https://www.facebook.com/afrozalam.sahil