When the media expose the real culprits through investigative journalism, their work is criticised as “trial by media”, which the judiciary has also considered to be influencing their judgment. In cases such as Arushi murder in Delhi, it was the CBI that regularly briefed the press leaving nothing for the judiciary to decide. The media were only overenthusiastic in sensationalising the private details of the case. Although not totally innocent, the media have been wrongfully blamed for this kind of “trial”. Now the media are busy reporting press conferences and selective leaks from the CBI or police investigators much before the evidence is produced before the court of law.
A couple of newspapers and a television channel are under trial by another section of the media in Andhra Pradesh today. Earlier, some newspapers were supporting the Congress and some the Telugu Desam Party. But now the media are passionately divided as pro- and anti-Jagan. Several hours on television channels and columns after columns in newspapers are filled with bombarding details of the questions and answers in the interrogation of Jaganmohan Reddy, MP, former Minister Mopidevi Venkataramana, industrialists, and IAS officers, as if the newspapers were allowed to witness the grilling of the accused. Continuous reporting on details of the illegal assets case of Kadapa MP Jagan has raised questions of “media trial” from a different point of view with respect to ethics and propriety.
On June 13 the division Bench of the AP High Court rejected the “public interest litigation” seeking a direction to restrain the CBI from sharing information with the media on interrogations pertaining to high-profile corruption cases, especially in Jagan’s case. The main allegation was selective leaking to some specific media organisations by the CBI to discredit Jagan. Bunches of clippings were filed in support, but the media organsations concerned were not made parties, and the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. However, within a week the “evidence” was produced.
Saakshi, the television news-channel and the newspaper by the same name, owned by Jagan, published on June 22 and 23 the call detail report (CDR) of cellphones in the name of Mr. V. V. Lakshminarayana, Joint Director, CBI, who is the key investigator, indicating the number of conversations between the officer and media persons, especially more number of times with the media hostile to Jagan, such as Eenadu and Andhra Jyothi daily newspapers and their TV channels Etv2, ABN besides TV9. These details were exposed by Jagan’s YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) taking the CBI by surprise. Both Jagan’s party and the media tried to present the “evidence” to prove their theory of “conspiracy of the CBI” for selective targeting of Jagan and using the media hostile to him to build up public opinion in favour of its efforts. The YSRCP blamed the Congress High Command for alleged conspiracy with TDP and its supporting media in order to decimate Jagan’s party. While Saakshi telecast its findings under the catchword “mahaa kutra” (great conspiracy), Andhra Jyothi used same slogan alleging that it was Saakshi-YSRCP conspiracy against them and the CBI.
Having won the byelections with huge margins, the YSRCP is baying for the blood of Mr. Lakshminarayana. Reportedly, the call details date back to several months, and YSRCP’s “Operation Lakshminarayana” began in December 2011 when a party leader started ascertaining as to who the joint director was talking to, in order to assess what lay in store for Jagan.
The call list of the CBI officer’s mobile phones showed 386 calls to TV9, 142 to NTV, 153 to ABN, and 300 plus calls to a mobile number registered in the name of Vasireddy Chandrabala, a software employee and Lead India NGO leader. YSRCP leaders alleged that she was related to V. Radhakrishna, managing director of Andhra Jyoti newspaper and ABN news channel. The party leaders demanded a through inquiry into the reasons for a CBI joint director to have telephonic conversations with her and ABN for over 300 times. Ambati Rambabu, spokesperson of YSRCP, suspected that Chandrabala operated as conduit between the CBI officer and the MD of Andhra Jyothi. He alleged that “the CBI JD has acted at the behest of others. Calls have been made from his number to Chandrabala's number and from there to an MD of a television channel. We suspect the link among these”.
The following day ABN channel went on airing an interview with Chandrabala who claimed that she was a classmate of the CBI officer and was talking to him in order to secure his support for her “Lead India” activities and organising old-students’ meet. She disputed the conspiracy theory and asserted that it was an invasion into her privacy and wrongly interpreting her calls.
The YSRCP statement shocked the crime reporters whose names were mentioned in call list. They addressed a media conference and stated that it was a part of their job and it was natural that they would call not just the joint director but a number of other police officials. They also replayed some of the alleged threats they were receiving from Sakshi. They asked Sakshi and party to stop dragging reporters into this tangle in their “bid to discredit the CBI”.
Perhaps, for the first time the CBI is caught in cross-fire between two sections of the biased media, besides the usual attack that it had become a tool for ruling party at the Center to wreak political vengeance against its political rivals. While a section has been projecting Lakshminarayana as a hero, making him “man of the year 2011”, “most known personality”, etc, pro-Jagan media are using every opportunity or a piece of evidence to nail the “credibility and impartiality” of the CBI.
There is nothing illegal about the media persons talking to the CBI investigators or the CBI holding a press conference or giving an interview explaining the process of collecting the evidence in any case. In fact, daily press briefings during the investigation of Rajiv Gandhi Assassination case brought in great clues and critical information from unknown quarters helping in reaching the culprits. Even the Criminal Procedure Code provides for a big role to a common citizen in the investigation and even in arresting a culprit.
An investigative journalist has every right to have access to the police and the people, as that is the goal of freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution. It is proper for both the police and the media to interact through interviews and press conferences. But multiple late-night calls for longer durations with some media representatives and fewer or no calls with another group raises several doubts. It may not be possible to nail the CBI joint director for these “links”, but equal access to all media is the general norm and maintaining equidistance or proximity with all media should be strictly complied with. In fact, the CBI manual mandates that nothing should be revealed until the investigation is concluded. Only in cases of successful traps, case registration, or catching the most-wanted criminal, the CBI can hold press conferences and officially disclose the information.
Another norm says that where the Press Information Bureau has an office, the CBI press briefings shall be routed through that office only. It can also release press notes through its Deputy Public Information Officer and not directly. Even the RTI Act does not give right to information when the process of investigation has not culminated into filing of a report. For the media, unbiased and objective reporting alone helps them to retain their credibility. But that is no longer the case with two giants of AP media, Eenadu and Sakshi, besides a few television news channels, clashing with each other every day. Meanwhile, the CBI is in the dock with “selective” leaking of information to select media houses and indulging in breach of guidelines, etc. It is trial by police through a section of the media. Naming chairmen, MDs, editors, and reporters and dragging them into the public in recent times has exposed the dark shades of the four estates of the Indian democracy.
(The writer is Professor and Head, Center for Media Law and Public Policy, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.)