Privacy in peril

BY Dasu Krishnamoorty| IN Media Practice | 01/01/1900
Let us see if there was any higher purpose for which the TV crew barged into Manu Sharma`s place by disguising their identity.

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Does an accused forfeit his right to privacy? The law (Article 21) confers this right on every person. An accused is not a criminal or convict. He is merely a suspect and a lot of things have to happen before he is convicted. He does not lose the right soon upon arrest. Yet, we see in the media, TV and print, faces or bodies of accused with faces masked. Let us concede that through unchallenged repetition, printing or telecasting offending pictures has crystallized into a self-legitimatising tradition. But when you see an accused masking his face, it clearly means, though indirectly, that he is not prepared to surrender his right to privacy. Freedom of the press has to yield ground to the right to privacy, particularly when the accused explicitly forbids a media person to take his pictures.

A short video clip on CNN-IBN website and three pictures appearing on Mumbai Mirror¿s website set me wondering if the courts are so helpless that they passively permit violations of right to privacy.  The link to the clip appeared next to a report with this heading: Manu Sharma caught on camera. The report by Jyoti Kamal (18 April) from Chandigarh claimed that businessman Manu Sharma, who was granted bail in the Jessica Lall murder case on Tuesday, had managed to avoid the media for years. Not with CNN-IBN around. Its team managed to swoop on him ? by tricking him (words used in the report). The first abuse here was to trick people into lowering their guard and the second was to boast about something both unethical and criminal.

How did they do it? After his acquittal in February, Sharma almost hid himself from public gaze. So the CNN-IBN crew, claiming they were activists of the National Students Union of India, hoodwinked Sharma into meeting them in his office at Picadilly Theatre in Sector 34 of Chandigarh. But when he realized that it was not students who had come to meet him he got furious and ordered his men to throw the TV team out. The video clip on CNN-IBN site showed people lighting candles in support of justice for Jessica, Manu Sharma¿s office in Piccadilly, his father¿s residence, Manu Sharma coming to and leaving courts and Jyoti Kamal leaving Manu Sharma¿s place.

Let us see if there is any higher purpose for which the TV crew barged into Manu Sharma¿s place by disguising their identity. Except for proving that Manu Sharma is keeping a low profile, the break-in did not unravel any new evidence that would help convict the Jessica murderer, whoever he/she is. Or, assume that Sharma had agreed to talk to the CNN-IBN team. Did they expect Manu Sharma to admit to them that he had a hand in Jessica¿s murder? The case has been re-opened only because the police could not produce credible evidence before the courts to prove Sharma¿s guilt. Assume also that the TV team had succeeded in posing itself as a NSUI group. Could they have maintained their camouflage if they had asked Sharma questions about Jessica murder? If they could not do that what was the purpose of this great adventure? Merely to tell the public of what risks they would take in ferreting out truth?

Mumbai Mirror (21 April) website carried this heading: Kasliwal freed from jail, captured by lensmen and three picture captions below the heading. There was no report or a byline. The captions clearly declared that the pictures were about Abhishek Kasliwal coming out of Arthur Road prison and dodging the cameras by ducking under his baseball cap. A photographer snatches his cap so that the cameras may capture his identity. A scuffle follows in which Kasliwal is badly bruised. This means that the media illegally intercepted Kasliwal¿s exercise of right to privacy. The only texts are the captions for three pictures. Of course, the pictures speak for themselves. But neither the captions nor the pictures tell us more than that Kasliwal was leaving prison and that media persons have tried to mortify him by baring his identity.

What is the value of the CBS-INN clip and Mumbai Mirror pictures for a viewer or a reader? Do they want to show that both Manu Sharma and Kasliwal tried to dodge media persons not to hide their identity but their guilt? This is not reporting but a breakdown of news management in CBS-IBN and Mumbai Mirror. On Friday (21 April), Aj Tak, Sahara and Headlines Today showed a scuffle outside a Patna hotel involving singer Udit Narain¿s aides and aggressive TV crews gathered to  witness the drama of charges and denials between Udit and a woman claiming to be his first wife. The other channels also must have shown these images. Apart from the issue of privacy, how is marital discord between Udit Narain and the woman claiming to be his first wife so important that the country will not be wiser without it?

The common thread for all the three stories is the importance of being a celebrity. Manu Sharma and Kasliwal belong to an exclusive club of socialites, rich and influential. Udit Narain is a target for being eminent in his area. I do not think that it is jealousy that prompted media to report these non-news events. On the other hand, it could be that the media are trying to win the status of news for new categories of information such as fashion shows and celebrity crime. The desire to create new news categories does not give the media the right to violate the privacy of others.

In recent months courts have been acting on their own in ordering retrials, in transferring cases to impartial courts and in directing police to look for fresh evidence. Media violations of the privacy of citizens have now become common and therefore alarming. Below-the-belt journalism popularized by Tehelka has little respect for old-world norms of objectivity, ethics etc. Nearly every TV news channel today has in its archives footage of clandestine images captured with the aid of nano-technology.

In many countries, it is illegal to use cameras clandestinely against another person in his or her house or office.  On several occasions, courts have ordered paparazzi to keep a distance between themselves and their quarry. Watergate showed us how a President had to quit office in disgrace and how his collaborators were jailed for trying to fix recording equipment clandestinely inside the office of a political adversary. The FBI alone has the authority to mount a sting operation.  No private individual, not even a journalist, can. Now Bush is in a soup. By a margin of 52% to 43%, Americans want Congress to consider impeaching Bush if he wiretapped American citizens without a judge`s approval, according to a new poll commissioned by AfterDowningStreet.org.

The time for judicial activism has now come. The CNN-IBN team has entered the house of a person, their prey, misleading him on their identity. That is a crime, gaining access through subterfuge. The courts need not wait for Manu Sharma to ask for relief. They can act on their own on the basis of the report that has appeared in the CNN-IBN website. A photographer frustrating the attempt of an accused to protect his identity also is an offence.

Media reporting of the above kind has not exposed any black deal that would have harmed public interest. Failure to punish such acts would expose men and women to intimidation. Most people do not complain because most people firstly do not know their rights and secondly most people who know their rights do not seek a legal remedy for fear of prolonged exposure to public gaze and debate. What moral authority does the media have to criticize the government for wire-tapping (Amar Singh case) when they themselves emulate Tehelka without any kind of mandate from any public body. The media has literally become a market place where undisguised greed demolishes public interest.

Contact: dasukrishnamoorty@hotmail.com

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