The wrongs of writing in Tejpal case

While the law sets the boundaries, journalists and editors must reflect whether their practice enhances or reduces the possibility of justice for all sides

April 05, 2014 02:53 am | Updated May 23, 2016 04:37 pm IST

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Fundamental questions relating to law, ethics and journalistic propriety have been raised by two recent pieces in Outlook magazine and The Citizen , an online newspaper, in the rape case involving Tarun Tejpal, former Tehelka editor and author.

It has led to umbrage on the part of several women journalists, lawyers and human rights activists, with some writing to media watchdogs in the country seeking redress for what they believe is an orchestrated campaign in defence of Mr. Tejpal.

The rape case, in which a young woman colleague at Tehelka alleged that Mr. Tejpal sexually assaulted her on two occasions inside a lift in Goa in November 2013, is one of the most discussed matters of its kind in recent memory. If the Tejpal case was becoming one of applications and hearings, the articles based on the closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage, which was specifically requested for by the defence, has suddenly thrown the spotlight back on the case.

Recent articles

The Outlook piece by well-known author and till-recently editor of Open magazine, Manu Joseph, carries a cover picture of Mr. Tejpal with a strapline saying: “What the CCTV cameras saw when the Tehelka editor walked in and out of the elevator with a Young Woman in a Goa resort last November. And the question marks that hang over what really happened inside the lift on those two nights.”

In the story, Mr. Joseph also refers to Mr. Tejpal’s text message to the complainant — “the fingertips” — as the “most destructive message an Indian public figure had sent out in recent times.”

“The message,” Mr. Joseph argued, “was either sent by a foolish rapist who, after his crime, was implicating himself through an SMS to a competent journalist whose area of special interest was the interaction between society, law and rape. Or it was sent by a drunken man who thought he was flirting.”

Emotions ran so high that after the publication of the piece in The Citizen , Seema Mustafa, editor-in-chief of the online newspaper, claimed their website was hacked after they published the article. “ The Citizen site as many of you know was ‘raided’ after the Tarun Tejpal story and made to crash…We wish to assert that we stand by our right as a media outlet committed to the truth to write without fear or favour,” Ms. Mustafa said on social media. “We decry efforts from different quarters to intimidate us. We support the victim’s right to seek justice just as we support Mr. Tejpal’s right to seek bail.”

Equally, if not more umbraged, was the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), a group comprising many respected women journalists, that took the two publications to task for their reports.

Pointing out that there was a trial court order that made it illegal to “show, see and write about” the CCTV footage, the NWMI argued that this was but one piece of evidence in the case.

“By presenting poor quality visuals as clinching evidence of innocence or guilt, credibility or implausibility — of the accused or the accuser — the articles fall short of journalistic standards and ethics. Any pre-trial article that does not analyse all the evidence related to the case is clearly prejudicial and unfair,” the NWMI said.

Outlook editor Krishna Prasad, when approached by this writer for a comment, said via a text message that Mr. Joseph’s piece was a “balanced and nuanced journalistic exercise into a sensitive story and represents all points of view, including that of the prosecution.”

To protect the identity of rape survivors, a provision — 228A of the Indian Penal Code — makes it clear that “any matter” printed or published without the permission of a court that leads to the identification of a rape victim could lead to a fine or jail of up to two years or both.

Colliding with the law

There are and will be cases where journalistic exercise doesn’t quite fit into the four corners of the law and the spirit of public interest could be invoked to justify and argue such cases.

Journalists have and will argue that their craft and the story might, on occasion, collide with the law, but when applied to the proceedings in the rape case involving Mr. Tejpal such a justification may not quite apply.

Considerable effort has gone into the mission to protect the identity of an individual complainant in cases of rape and sexual assault in the country. There is little doubt that the legal boundaries in this domain for journalists — in print, television and digital — are well-defined and need to be respected.

In a highly charged and polarised debate, anyone who says that Mr. Tejpal should be given bail, for instance, could be viciously attacked on social media given that his many political enemies come from the far right of the Indian political spectrum. Many who hate Mr. Tejpal for his politics are happy that he’s inside jail in the rape case. However, it must be said that the battle for his innocence or guilt, at the end of the day, will be decided in a court of law. At the same time, those of us who live in the real world are more than aware that what appears on television, in newspapers and the web does influence individuals involved in the legal process as well. Lawyers and judges, too, happen to consume the news in their capacity as citizens.

Given the disproportionate attention some cases receive (the Arushi Talwar murder case being another one), we probably haven’t heard the last in the rape charge involving Mr. Tejpal.

While the law sets the boundaries, journalists and editors must reflect whether their practice enhances or reduces the possibility of justice for all sides in such high-profile cases.

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