The arrest of Chhatradhar Mahato by policemen posing as journalists may have been the stuff of spy thrillers but the adventure has come in for criticism from representatives of the media, among them former editors and the globally networked International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
The elusive convener of the Maoist-backed Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee (People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities) was dramatically picked up on Saturday from a village near Lalgarh in West Bengal’s Paschim Medinipur district. Though officially in hiding, Mr. Mahato had been in regular contact with local journalists which fact was used by the police to trap him.
As reported by The Hindu on Sunday, policemen, pretending to be journalists from a foreign news agency, approached two local reporters, who, unaware that they were part of an undercover police mission, led them to Mr. Mahato’s hideout. The decoy reporters conducted a mock interview after which one of them whipped out his revolver and secured Mr. Mahato’s arrest.
Reacting to this, the IFJ said in a statement that it was “deeply disturbed” by the implications of the operation. “The police operation in West Bengal compromises the status of journalists and spreads a pall of suspicion over the profession,” said the organisation’s Asia-Pacific Director, Jacqueline Park. Ms. Park said the IFJ was concerned that the incident would seriously impede the freedom that journalists in India enjoyed to “meet and interview all parties in an evolving situation.”
Columnists and former editors Nihal Singh and Inder Malhotra described the incident as unfortunate. Mr. Singh said it had “diminished the role and profession of journalists.”
Pointing out that Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance chief Ahmed Shah Massoud had been killed by Al-Qaeda assassins posing as news camerapersons, Mr. Singh said, “We must draw a line between professional journalism and such misrepresentation.” He argued that whatever was the objective of operation, it denigrated the profession. “After all, journalism trades in only one thing — integrity. And if that integrity is lost, it is not a good development.”
Mr. Malhotra said he found sting operations problematic and unethical, whether that involved policemen posing as journalists or journalists posing as other people. He said he did not see any public good being served by such deception.