Newsmen or political workers?

Madabhushi Sridhar

With political leaders running their own media houses, journalistic neutrality is in short supply. Although not illegal, it is unethical for a journalist to work for a political party.

Journalists working for the media owned by politicians are in a dilemma over the likely criminal consequence of their writing besides being worried about what should be their ethics and objectives of functioning. Are they mere employees to abide by the terms of contract including unflinching loyalty? Are they members of the journalistic profession with a duty to report keeping in mind ethical neutrality and objectivity? Or are they loyal workers of the political party started by their employer?
For pursuing the so-called “investigative journalism” an employee of Sakshi, owned by Jagan Mohan Reddy, MP, is facing a criminal cases for the alleged cyber crime of invading the privacy of two persons under the Information Technology Act 2000 (as amended in 2008) and some charges under the draconian colonial laws – Official Secrets Act 1923, Indian Telegraph Act 1885, and the Indian Penal Code 1860. The Cyber Crime Station of Cyberabad (part of Hyderabad) has registered criminal cases against a news reporter of Saakshi for obtaining and leaking call details of the cellular phone of CBI Joint Director V.V. Lakshminarayana and the leader of Lead India NGO Chandrabala. While these old laws show how media continues to be vulnerable even after 64 years of Independence, the other charges reveal the consequences of aggressive and biased writings.

Invading privacy of and defaming a woman
Section 43 of the amended IT Act provides for remedy of compensation if somebody steals data from a computer resource with an intention to cause damage . As per Section 66, if this offence is committed “dishonestly or fraudulently”, it invites punishment up to three years imprisonment and fine .
This computer-related offence is defined and added along with the compensation provisions to IT Act in 2008. Sakshi reporter Yadagiri Reddy is facing charges under section 66 read with 43 of the IT Act. If the charges are proved, it might result in his imprisonment, compensation (to be quantified), and penalty up to Rs. 5 lakh. Except for the compensation which his organisation might agree to pay, other punishments are personal. In addition to this, Ms. Chandrabala has charged the reporter under Section 509 IPC for insulting her and intruding upon her privacy .
Ms. Chandrabala has complained that her call details were obtained by the reporter with the help of Inspector of Police Srinivas Rao and others, and supplied those details to Sakshi TV which repeatedly published them with defamatory additions, with mens rea of causing loss to her reputation. The reporter has been further accused of stealing the email ID of Deputy Commissioner of Police Malkajigiri division, Hyderabad, and asking Airtel to furnish the call details. This invites prosecution for another crime. The complaint says that that the concerned television channel had included an innuendo against her saying that she had made unreasonable number of calls at different times to the CBI officer, who, it is learnt, is her classmate.

Harming a public servant
The complaint filed by the CBI officer has similarly charged the reporter. On his complaint, a case under Section 505 read with 120 B IPC has also been registered .  If proved guilty, imprisonment for a year awaits the journalists if the State presses for Section 24 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885  . If the allegation under Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act is proved, the accused will be punished with imprisonment up to three years for leaking call details of a public servant .  Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act, 1923, deals with wrongful communication, etc., of information.
Every piece of investigative reporting involves “invasion” of privacy and obtaining “information” without permission. An important component of criminal liability is s criminal intent. But this can be overturned if there is an overwhelming public interest in revealing such information. If it is in public interest to explain how a CBI officer was selectively sharing information with a section of the media, the accused may escape the liability. But as the media is allegedly presenting one-sided reports, against the CBI, it is difficult to convince one that the information was obtained not in private interest but in public interest. (The Andhra Pradesh High Court on July 2, 2012 asked the CBI officer to reply to this allegation within a week).
Finally, is it investigative reporting, or is it something accentuated by political interest or business interest of the employer?

Writing for proprietor-cum party chief
As the line separating the media from political parties is getting increasingly blurred with the owner of the news establishment and the head of a political party being one and the same, the point of ethics advocating unbiased functioning for social purposes appears to have lost its relevance. The journalists and their leaders in such media are now in a fix. Is the contract of employment in media now controlling the conduct of journalistic profession for achieving the political needs of an accused owner? Should a journalist “worker” of a company be loyal to his employer’s political party even when the latter is an accused in criminal cases?
If a daily/television reporter is assigned to cover the activities of a political party, ethics demand that he shall not behave like a supporter of that party and instead be an objective critic of that party.
The CBI, the country’s prime investigating agency, being under the control of Union Government is legally not incorrect, but the question that it was acting in a way that would help the ruling party is a big legal issue concerning fair trial.
By the same logic, although not illegal, it is unethical for a journalist to work for a political party. It is not illegal because there is no law to regulate this conduct. There is no restriction on a person for being a political leader and also the proprietor of a newspaper.
If that owner is accused in a series of cases of corruption and disproportionate assets and then if he uses his employees in the media, both print and electronic, to question the investigation against him, can his action be termed legal or proper? 
Both investigators and investigative journalists should exercise ethical neutrality. If there is a lapse, the law, if there is any, has to initiate remedial measures.

Madabhushi Sridhar, Professor and Head, Center for Media Law and Public Policy, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. 
M. Sridhar’ E-Mail: [email protected]

1. If any person without permission to such computer, computer system, or computer network, or computer resource, steals, conceals, destroys, or alters or causes any person to steal conceal, destroy, or alter any computer source code used for a computer resource, with an intention to cause damage, he shall be liable to pay damages by way of compensation to the person so affected. (Section 43(j) IT Act, 2000).
2. If any person, dishonestly or fraudulently, does any act referred to in Section 43, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees or with both. (Section 66 IT Act, 2000)
3. IPC, Section 509 says: Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, of that such gesture or object shall be seen by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
4. Section 505 deals with the statements conducing to public mischief.—[(1)] Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report,—(a) with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor, or airman] in the Army, Navy, or Air Force of India to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty as such; or….shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.