It is difficult to imagine a graver threat to journalism as a watchdog of democracy than the prosecution of journalists for ‘abetting’ the very crimes they expose. Yet, that is precisely what is happening in a nation that often takes pride in the tag of ‘world’s largest democracy’. Two journalists – one of them arguably the country’s foremost investigative hacks – have been booked for abetting corruption.
Their offence: They unearthed how MPs, cutting across party lines, demand and accept bribes for tabling questions in Parliament. The Aaj Tak- Cobrapost exposÃ© led to expulsion of 11 errant MPs from Parliament. ‘ Operation Duryodhana’ was lauded by the Supreme Court, and both the crime branch and forensic reports confirmed its authenticity.
Yet four years hence, the Delhi Police have invoked penal provisions against Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal and reporter Suhasini Raj for offering the MPs money as part of their sting operation. They have been named as co- accused in the chargesheet against the 11 MPs.
On Thursday, the country’s seniormost editors and lawyers spoke out against the wilful harassment of the scribes. They said the sting operation had been carried out in the larger public interest. There was no personal interest or malicious intent in the investigation.
“This is outrageous. Journalists have been made offenders for serving the public cause,” said Star India CEO Uday Shankar.
Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, who is himself credited with many exposÃ©s, feels the police action is grossly unfair. ” They have set a wrong precedent. The move sends a message that journalists would be targeted for taking on the high and mighty,” he said.
Noted lawyer Prashant Bhushan was also left aghast. ” The action is absurd. To make somebody an accused, there has to be ‘ mens rea’ or guilty intent. Otherwise, why is the bribegiver spared in the traps that are laid by the CBI?” he challenged.
Senior advocate Rajeev Dhawan compared a journalist’s position with that of a whistleblower. ” In fact it is even better, as a whistleblower may have violated service rules which an investigative journalist has not,” he said.
“Also, the money offered in a sting operation is not for personal gain or to serve a vested interest. The Supreme Court has repeatedly lauded sting operations carried out in the public interest. This case simply shows the police either do not know their law or someone is putting pressure on them.” The police themselves seem unsure of what they are doing — making it clear that their action is sheer harassment. Though the cops have named Bahal and Raj as accused, the chargesheet also says the two may benefit from Section 24 of the Prevention of Corruption Act and other legal provisions. The clause protects bribe- givers from being subjected to prosecution.
The police have also indicated in the chargesheet that the two could be made approvers. However, they would remain ” accused”. This is not the first case of harassment of investigative journalists.
The advance of media technology has led to a spate of sting operations over the past decade. But almost every time the operations have successfully blown the lid off corruption in the ranks of the government or the judiciary, there has been a backlash.
Tehelka, which introduced the phenomenon in Indian journalism, was harassed for a long time for exposing corruption in defence deals in 2001.
Not every sting operation is genuine. The ‘Uma Khurana’ case, in which a reporter intentionally framed a schoolteacher as a pimp, stands out. Another reporter wrongly showed a Ghaziabad doctor as willing to amputate healthy men to turn them into beggars. In both cases, the reporters could not escape the law.
But such cases are few. Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court gave the thumbs up to a sting operation that exposed the connivance of prosecution and defence lawyers in the sensational BMW hit- and- run case. “It is not our intent here to lay down any reformist agenda for the media,” said the apex court bench. “The norms to regulate the media and to raise its professional standards must come from inside.”