Whistleblowing these days can led to threats or a refusal to publish the truth, where are we headed, asks veteran consumer activist Sakuntala Narasimhan
In 1983, I wrote a long lead story exposing malpractices in government hospitals. The expose won me a national award for journalism. Three decades later, when I did another expose on corrupt officials targeting foreigners who arrive at Bengaluru International Airport extracting bribes, I received anonymous calls threatening to have my income tax files reopened. Whistle blowing brought awards, three decades ago. Today they bring threats. Or death.
What triggered this thought was the incident of 9 June 2015 when journalist Jagendra Singh from Uttar Pradesh was killed brazenly for writing about state minister Rammurti Singh Verma's involvement in illegal mining activities and a rape case. Reports say a senior politician has put pressure on Singh's family to withdraw the case against the minister (who is reported to have abetted the crime) in return for Rs10 lakh as 'incentive'.
Earlier, on 11 March 2015, the Supreme Court awarded life sentence to the accused in the murder of whistleblower and IIM alumnus Manjunath Shanmugam who exposed malpractices in petrol retail. And on 16th Mach, IAS officer DK Ravi who was additional commissioner (enforcement) in the commercial taxes department in Karnataka and known as an upright officer, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. He had, just four days earlier, unearthed massive tax evasion by powerful commercial interests, and raided the offices of leading realty companies to recover tax arrears totalling Rs190 crore. One "influential" politician had reportedly asked Ravi to reduce the penalty of Rs40 crore slapped on his firm to Rs40 lakh. Following the widespread protests that the state saw in the wake of Ravi's death, Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy observed that "honest bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen need to be protected". What about journalists, who expose misdeeds in administration? The global network Reporters Without Borders, records that 71 journalists were murdered in 2013.
On 8 June 2015, charges were finally filed in the case of investigative reporter Jyotirmoy Dey (J Dey), who worked for Mid-Day at Mumbai, and was shot dead in June 2011 by goons for writing two articles exposing corrupt goings on. One of the accused is already dead, and it has taken four years just to frame charges, in spite of a minister of Maharashtra "personally overseeing the progress of the case".
If exposing wrongdoing brings punishment, what is the role of conscientious journalists and the media they work for?
A reporter of Maharashtra who wrote about expensive weapons bought with public money for the Railway Protection Force (RPF) following the November 2008 attack at Mumbai, lying rusting and unused, was not lauded for speaking up on behalf of taxpayers, but arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act.
In the case of Jagendra Singh's murder on 9th June, a cop is alleged to have poured petrol on him and set him ablaze. If the police and politicians, those expected to uphold justice and safety, target those who expose wrong doing in the corridors of power, where does one turn? Isn't the role of the media that of the 'fifth estate' in upholding justice and freedom of expression? During June again, and in the months that followed, more journalists were attacked, in Assam, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
Some 25 years ago, when the Express group broke several major stories exposing corruption, the paper had over 200 court cases slapped on it by a miffed government. And a court case can drag on for decades and be debilitating, for the journalist and his/her publication, even if one is finally proved right. My first brush with intimidation and threats was when I wrote a consumer protection piece about harmful chemicals in hair dyes. The manufacturer promptly sent a legal notice demanding massive compensation. Luckily, the chemist who had carried out the analysis stood by her lab report, and my paper supported me.
But over the years, with greater corporate control of the media, and profits dictating news content, it has become harder to tell the truth (because advertisers whose products are under scrutiny will withdraw ads). One leading paper had accepted a series of four articles in which I had exposed various shady rules in public utilities. As soon as the first one (focusing on questionable insurance policy clauses) appeared, the editor received a call from the insurance company boss threatening to have him transferred. "Haath jodtha hoon," (I entreat you) the editor said to me, "I cannot afford to have two establishments now, my son is in the final year of school, please withdraw the remaining articles." More than once, in recent years, editors have refused to carry reports that expose VIP involvement in shady deals. "You may be ready to stick your neck out, but our paper doesn't want trouble," I was told.
There is a massive scam going on, in Bengaluru, with bus conductors pocketing change without issuing tickets. The daily loss to the transport corporation, I estimated, is around Rs1.2 lakh. I commute regularly by public bus and often pull up conductors, who pocket change and send off complaints to higher authorities giving details of route and time. Once, as I was alighting at my stop, the conductor (whom I had earlier pulled up) blew the whistle a shade too soon, and the bus lurched forward even as I had one foot on the road and the other on the bus. Had there been a vehicle overtaking the bus on the left (as two wheelers often do) I could have been run over.
Those, who raise their voices against rip-offs are punished - by a mafia-politician nexus that is powerful enough to penalize those who expose misdeeds. Journalistic heroism or administrative uprightness brings danger - a Khemka gets charge sheeted and transferred 42 times in 20 years, and a Durga Shakti Nagpal gets suspended.
Notwithstanding a public announcement of 29 July 2004 from the Ministry of Public Grievances encouraging citizens to approach the Chief Vigilance Commissioner with complaints about corruption. When police officers set complainants ablaze, and ministers hound honest officials or set goondas to beat up whistle-blowers, journalistic or administrative 'heroism' can, sadly, be neither safe nor politic.
When I interviewed the winner of an international award for courage in journalism in Europe a decade ago, she and I had to sit with gun toting guards on either side; the reporter had bombs planted in her home for her expose. But that was in Spain, we in India pride ourselves on being "the world's largest democracy" with freedom of speech and a free media.
In these three decades since my report on unsatisfactory hospital services, our GDP has increased steadily and impressively; has that gone hand in hand with strengthening the kind of parameters that our Constitution promises, based on the paramountcy of justice, upholding the law and exposing malpractices through an independent media?
(Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician and consumer activist.)