IN A week when two national parties have found new helmsmen, a former CM has been convicted to 10 years in jail, another CM has been rapped by his own father for misgovernance, a state government is on the verge of collapse, and a major report on rape laws has been submitted to the home ministry, it might seem a bit odd to devote this column to something else altogether.
But over the past two and a half months, an important story has been playing out below the radar of national attention. It pleads a greater hearing. On 7 November 2012, Naveen Soorinje, a 28-year old reporter working with the Kasturi News 24 channel in Karnataka, was arrested on daunting charges: conspiracy; unlawful assembly; rioting with deadly weapons; criminal trespass; causing grievous hurt; and assault on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty.
Ironically, three months earlier, it was Soorinje’s story that had helped the police book 43 goons from the right-wing Hindu Jagaran Vedike for breaking into a private birthday party in Mangalore and molesting and beating the girls there. Now, in a cruel twist, the police had booked him as the 44th assaulter. In the last week of December, crushingly for Soorinje, the Karnataka High Court struck down some of the charges but still denied him bail. It held him guilty of colluding with the assaulters because he did not inform the police and because, according to the judge’s ruling, he had “encouraged the happening of the incident and assisted in videography of the event, and thereafter facilitated its telecast in television channels, which has caused greater damage to the dignity and reputation of the victims”. Soorinje’s argument that he was outnumbered by the goons and all he could do was record the crime as a journalist has been ignored. He is now waiting to appeal for bail in the Supreme Court.
Soorinje’s story has many disturbing implications for democracy and media freedom. This ruling sets a very dangerous precedent. There have undoubtedly been several cases in the recent past when the media has crossed a grey line and become, in some sense, not a chronicler of events but an uncomfortable magnification. The lumpen moral police, in particular, love the idea of spectacle: they often invite television crews before going on their brute rampage. Should the media report these incidents or should they cut off the vandals’ life breath by refusing to shoot? Should they tip off the police immediately? This must — and should — be subject to an urgent debate. But unless a journalist or media house is accused of actively exacerbating the crime — as in the Guwahati molestation case when the reporter’s role came into serious question — it is outrageous to arrest a journalist on these grounds.
Journalists are sometimes privy to secret information that can make for an exclusive story. It is understandable to expect them to report information of a bomb or a murder plot, a vandal attack or even a potential poaching incident to the police. But if this is stretched further, in the future, can they be arrested for meeting and getting an exclusive interview with a Maoist, insurgent, terrorist or underworld don because they did not tip off the police? Clearly, that would be a frightening absurdity.
In Soorinje’s case, the arguments against him already seem to have seriously skidded off the rails. According to him, he was not tipped off by the goons but by a frightened local he does not want to expose. His call records corroborate that he did not get any call from the goons. He also claims that he did try to call the police — both the Mangalore Police Commissioner (who, it turns out, was out of town) and a local inspector, Ravish Nayak. Neither picked his call or called back. Unfortunately for him, Soorinje’s calls to them, therefore, have not registered in his call records either.
The story gets more darkly ironic because Soorinje, who grew up in an agricultural family, has a track record of exposing the communal forces in Karnataka. According to his peers in the media, it is unthinkable — insupportable — that he would ever be party to such an attack. Many, in fact, suspect his arrest is driven by political vendetta: he was speaking up too often and too loud.
Last week, a small group of journalists went on a hunger strike to protest his arrest. The state home minister promised to intervene. Nothing has happened. The fact that the national media has failed to take up this story of a hinterland peer under assault is only serving to perpetuate the inaction.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.