Balancing public’s right to know with an individual’s privacy, reputation and defense

Consider the widely publicized debate in the media on the sexual harassment allegation by a law intern against the retired Supreme Court judge, Justice A. K. Ganguly. The clamour, mainly in the political and judicial circles and among the women’s groups, in favour of his resignation from the post of the Chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission held by him at the time, reverberated in the media. This was aided by important judicial functionaries like Indira Jaising, the union law minister Kapil Sibal and unnamed officials of his ministry, senior Supreme Court advocates like Raju Ramachandran, women’s right activists like Vrinda Grover forcefully arguing for his resignation (failing which removal by the President) from his position on moral grounds as soon as the allegation surfaced. Among them Indira Jaising, the additional Solicitor General of India even played an activist role and leaked to the press an important document relevant to the case, namely, the law intern’s affidavit proffered to the three-SC judge committee appointed by the Chief Justice of India for preliminary investigation on the allegation.


It was not surprising at all that the West Bengal Government and the ruling political party, the Trinamul Congress (TMC), would go all out in demanding his removal from the commission that had passed over the last one and half years a number of orders unambiguously faulting the government on human rights issues in the state. His many important judicial pronouncements, especially the 2G verdict, had not endeared Ganguly particularly to the Congress party and its ministers, including Sibal, who defended Government position on the 2G spectrum allocation and the presumptive loss.


It was amusing that the few feeble voices supporting Ganguly, like Soli Sorabjee, the former Attorney General of India or the former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee provoked these judicial and political condemnation to become all the more strident, occasionally even virulent

Interestingly, many of these voices expressing outrage and asking for the head of Ganguly to roll (clearly meant to be a public humiliation and a surrogate punishment) on many other occasions (when some among their own cabal are in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons) hold forth legally pious opinion that unless convicted as guilty in a court of law on the basis of unambiguous evidence one has to be held innocent and can not be punished purely on the basis of a mere allegation or suspicion. Politicians fighting such allegations, some quite serious, are a legion.


Media overdrive in indulging in repetitive, often no-holds-barred discussion not withholding any of the graphic details, are being justified not just by the media but even the victim’s supporters in a new-found evangelism for transparency. This is often portrayed, tendentiously, as a contest between the so-called public’s right to know in a democracy and an individual’s right to privacy and reputation. And no prize for guessing which side media and the evangelists are taking in this conceptual confrontation. It is being forgotten that the alleged perpetrator also has a right to defend his/her case in a proper legal forum of his/her choice and is not obliged to join this ugly public slugfest organised by the media where partisan commentators are having a field day.


Media and the self-appointed supporters of the ‘victim’ would act as investigators (in absence of a regular police investigation) or veritable prosecutors pending a duly instituted court case, marshalling ‘evidences’ (often spurious ones provided by unnamed ‘sources’ in all manner of institutions including government offices, rumours and hearsays picked up in the corridors of ministries, Supreme Court, etc). The slant of the argument is almost always towards framing of charges, with an assumption in good faith that whatever the ‘victim’ is saying is the only ‘truth’, followed by the declaration of the judgment, which is practically a foregone conclusion, in this case, removal of Ganguly as the chairman of the commission by the President. It is usually a presumption of guilt on the part of the ‘designated’ perpetrator until proved innocent. The onus is on him to remove this insinuation of offence.


In today’s atmosphere of heightened sensitivity towards crimes against women, politicians, the civil society intellectuals and activists have to wear their women-friendliness on the sleeves and find it politically correct to jump to the defense of a woman ‘crying harassment’ as soon as the allegation is made and assume implicitly what is being alleged as factually correct (except where the alleged perpetrator is one of their colleagues, friends or relatives).  


An important question is whether, in course of the media trial by these very public fulminations and utterances, the tarnishing of the reputation of the individual (built over the years with solid praiseworthy work, as in the case of Justice Ganguly) who is all but designated as the perpetrator of the alleged crime, should be of no consequence to the zealous participants of these ‘trials’. Secondly it is a moot question whether such repetitive, incessant negative publicity can influence the outcome of the eventual police investigations, if not court cases. It is being blithely assumed that the our professional policemen and the learned judges who live and breathe in this very confrontationist society would be above these media furore and deal with the case with absolute impartiality when it is committed to them.


Can the media’s stated objective of playing the role of defenders of public’s right to know be taken seriously? A day after Sunanda Pushkar’s tragic unnatural death, a top English language daily news paper makes us privy to the ‘non-stop flaming rows’ between Shashi Tharoor, a very visible minister in the Union cabinet, and his wife in public, all the way during their flight from Thiruvananthapuram to New Delhi a couple of days before her death (apparently vouched by no less a person than Manish Tewari, the Information and Broadcasting Minister, Government of India, who happened to be a co-passenger during the flight). We are also informed of the testimony, through ‘police sources’, of Tharoor’s domestic help Narain that the harsh exchanges between the couple, which even turned violent, continued for the better part of the night prior to the day Sunanda’s death was discovered. In their mounting zeal to inform the reader as completely as possible, the news paper thought it fit to include a box item (within the text) to make him/her aware as to what the doctors at AIIMS checked during the post-mortem examination, namely, ‘muscularity’, ‘rigor mortis’, ‘state of natural orifices’, ‘external injury marks’, samples of viscera, etc. For several days prior to this tragedy, the print and the electronic media were anyway agog with the ‘information’ about the very open and ugly spat involving Shashi Tharoor, Sunanda Pushkar and the Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar and the speculation about the marital relationship of Tharoors. Pray, which of these nuggets of information is essential for the intellectual edification of us, the poor public?


In the name of informing the public the media may be basically looking to hit upon an unexceptionable business model, pandering to the public’s general suspicion about the possible acts of misdemeanour and a fairly wide spread dis-affectation with the celebrities, people in high places, holding important offices. There is an apparent need for the public to vent their anger and frustration, in a fairly convenient and anonymous manner, regarding many things in the life of an average and ordinary Indian about which people of means and with power are at best indifferent. The media trial puts the audience at the judge’s seat in such high profile cases and vicariously satisfies a public fantasy. And in the process sets up a steady revenue stream. 

1 comment to Balancing public’s right to know with an individual’s privacy, reputation and defense

  • Media has got it’s own business model, which should be stopped. In the name of informing public, Media starts the as if they have got the right to be judgmental. It should be stopped and the law is equal for all. The culprit should be and will be punished.

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