On 15 January, over a thousand pages of the charge-sheet filed by the Mumbai Police in the TRP scam case were leaked to the press. They contain transcripts of alleged private WhatsApp chats between Partho Dasgupta, former CEO, Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), the body responsible for measuring and publishing the Television Rating Point (TRP) of television channels, and Arnab Goswami, the managing director and editor-in-chief of Republic Media Network. The transcripts also contain alleged WhatsApp conversations with Republic TV CEO Vikas Khanchandani and BARC officials including COO Romil Ramgaria and vice presidents Mubin Khan and Venkat Sujit Samrat Ch. The contents and the timing of the leak indicate that India’s democratic institutions and constitutional ideals are in a worrying state, says MONICA DHANRAJ.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—Evelyn Beatrice Hall, Friends of Voltaire.
ON June 15, 2020, actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead at his residence in Mumbai. This sad news came at a time when India was reeling under the worst pandemic to have hit the world in over a century. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government were drawing criticism from civil society and the media for having failed to plan effectively for a nationwide lockdown, which was suddenly announced on March 24.
While the country was in the midst of a near-crippling socio-economic crisis, the MD and chief editor of Republic TV, Arnab Goswami, did something stunning. His channel declared that Rajput’s death was a planned murder despite the post mortem report prepared by a team of five doctors at Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, ruling it as a suicide. The hospital’s report says the cause of death was asphyxia by hanging and a subsequent autopsy report by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) confirmed this. Still, for three months Goswami repeatedly discussed Rajput’s “murder” on his shows, “The Debate” and “Poochta hai Bharat”. When Goswami was not on air himself, his team of anchors pushed his narrative.
Goswami made a villain of Rajput’s ex-girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakraborty, and published selective parts of her personal chats on national television.
Also Read: Media Trial of Rhea Chakraborty in Sushant Case Plummets to New Low
He published other private WhatsApp conversations including actors Deepika Padukone, Shraddha Kapoor and Rakul Preet Singh. He would read specific parts of their chats over and over across weeks during the majority of his debates on Republic TV and Republic Bharat. He labelled the women “druggies”, “filth”, “queen of the drug circuit”, and ran their fake “confessions” without a care in the world for the law or journalistic ethics.
It was like watching a car wreck. It was horrible, but people kept watching as he spun a hateful narrative around Rhea, Deepika and others, always referring to them with contempt and vitriol. Other news channels followed his example.
On January 15, 2021, the story came full circle. Two volumes of the alleged TRP scam charge-sheet were leaked to the press, four days after the Mumbai Police had filed it in court. Now the alleged personal WhatsApp conversations of Partho Dasgupta, former CEO of BARC, most notably with Arnab Goswami, are out. If the transcript is genuine, they contain several damning comments from both the dramatis personae.
In one instance, Dasgupta tells Goswami in the chats that the reform proposal of telecom regulatory body Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to measure television viewership digitally, using special software installed in the set-top box, would hurt both the Republic channel and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is ruling at the Centre.
When constitutional safeguards are subverted for a person, regardless of their beliefs or ideology, it legitimises future subversions of everybody else’s rights.
In another purported chat, Dasgupta tells Goswami he had jammed the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a private association of current affairs and news television broadcasters. He asks Arnab to help him with contacts in the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Will happen,” Goswami responds, according to the transcript.
Dasgupta responds, “Have supported you and without saying so and have jammed others.”
Two years earlier, on February 14, 2019, a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle against a CRPF convoy in Pulwama, Goswami says to Dasgupta in the leaked conversations, “This attack we have won like crazy.” Forty Indian jawans lost their lives in the attack, forty families lost their loved ones. Goswami’s glee is unbecoming of any journalist, and especially enraging and painful for one who has a family background in the armed forces.
The leak brings to light many pertinent questions that require urgent attention. For simplification, they have been broadly categorised in four heads:
- The leak of state secrets;
- Complete disregard of the fundamental right to privacy.
- The role of investigative agencies in leaks of key documents such as the charge-sheets of sub-judice matters and reasons to believe that this is being done to target and harass select individuals.
- The media-establishment nexus and its indiscreet and selective use of personal data to drum up narratives. The consequences of this and the media’s responsibility when reporting on national security.
There are significant overlaps between these four categories since all work in tandem. This is the first article in the series that would cover issues pertaining to leaking of such sensitive information.
BALAKOT AND OFFICIAL SECRETS ACT, 1923
Transcripts of Goswami’s chat with Dasgupta reveal that Goswami knew of the Balakot strike on February 23, 2019, three days before it was carried out, for he tells Dasgupta, “Something big will happen…in relation to Pakistan.” When Dasgupta asks if it would be a strike, Goswami responds, “Bigger than a normal strike… the government is confident of striking in a way that people will be elated. exact words used.”
Also Read: SC asks Republic TV to go Bombay HC against police summons in TRP scam; “have faith in our high courts”, says Justice Chandrachud
Again, if true, the leaked transcripts contain proof that Goswami was privy to sensitive information regarding the Indian armed forces that he should not have had access to and that he communicated this to Dasgupta. Goswami, through this disclosure, would be liable under section 3(1)(a) the Official Secrets Act (OSA), 1923, which states:
“If any person for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State—
(c) obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates to any other person any secret official code or password, or any sketch, plan, model, article or note or other document or information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy or which relates to a matter the disclosure of which is likely to affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State or friendly relations with foreign States; he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend, where the offence is committed in relation to any work of defence, arsenal, naval, military or air force establishment or station, mine, minefield, factory, dockyard, camp, ship or aircraft or otherwise in relation to the naval, military or air force affairs of Government or in relation to any secret official code, to fourteen years and in other cases to three years.”
Let us not forget, Goswami is not the only one in violation of the law. Goswami’s source had knowledge of the Balakot strike at least three days ahead of the actual attack and communicated an extremely important state secret to a journalist.
FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO PRIVACY
The leak is reminiscent of the most recent leak of Umar Khalid’s charge-sheet in relation to the February 2019 violence in North-East Delhi that has also been leaked to the press. Khalid was arrested on September 13, 2020 by Delhi Police in connection with an alleged conspiracy to stoke the violence in Delhi. He has been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, the Arms Act, 1959, and the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Additionally, on January 1, 2021, a 100-page charge-sheet filed by the Crime Branch of Delhi Police on December 26, 2020 was also leaked to the press.
Many on the right cheered when Khalid was arrested; many on the left saw no issue with the leak of Goswami’s charge-sheet. But people across the political spectrum must realise that constitutional safeguards exist for all or are subverted for all.
Despite the shifting narratives of the Delhi Police regarding Khalid’s involvement in a conspiracy to provoke the violence and no concrete evidence to support the claim that he was involved at all, just like Rhea Chakraborty, he has been labelled by the press as a conspirator. False narratives have been spun that he has links with terrorists, the People’s Front of India (PFI), and so on. Even a “confession” in the form of an alleged disclosure to the police by a co-accused has been wheeled out to build a public narrative against Khalid.
On the other hand, Goswami’s chats with the ex-BARC chief Dasgupta, if genuine, seem fairly incriminating. That said, both of them have the right to keep their personal communications private. The fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees this to all citizens.
On August 24, 2017, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by then Chief Justice JS Khehar and justices Jasti Chelameshwar, SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Abdul Nazeer, Nariman, RK Agarwal, Abhay Manohar Sapre and Sanjay Kishan Kaul delivered the historic Justice KS Puttaswamy (Retd) v. Union of India judgement, overruling MP Sharma v Satish Chandra, District Magistrate, Delhi and Kharak Singh vs The State of UP and others. The one-page order signed by all nine judges declared:
“The right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.”
Justice Chandrachud, speaking for justices Khehar, Agarwal and Nazeer and himself said:
“Life and personal liberty are inalienable rights…inseparable from a dignified human existence. The dignity of the individual, equality between human beings and the quest for liberty are the foundational pillars of the Indian Constitution…Life and personal liberty are not creations of the Constitution. These rights are recognised by the Constitution as inhering in each individual as an intrinsic and inseparable part of the human element which dwells within.”
The judgement has since been cited as precedent in various landmark judgments such as the Navtej Singh Johar vs. UoI (constitutionality of section 377 of the IPC), Joseph Shine v. UoI (decriminalisation of adultery) and Vinit Kumar v. Central Bureau of Investigation (curtailing the state’s powers of surveillance).
No doubt Goswami was indiscreet and lacked propriety in publishing the personal chats of Rhea, Padukone and others, and trampled on their rights to privacy and a fair trial. If the chats are genuine, many of his statements are self-incriminating and call into question his journalism. Yet there should be no doubt that his fundamental right to life has been violated by the leak. It is in direct contravention with the law in Puttaswamy.
Many on the right had cheered when Khalid was arrested; many on the left saw no issue with the leak of Goswami’s charge-sheet. But people across the political spectrum must realise, and soon, that when constitutional safeguards are subverted for a person, regardless of their beliefs or ideology, it legitimises future subversions of everybody else’s rights.
(Monica Dhanraj is a lawyer. She graduated from the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata and is a Staff Writer at The Leaflet. Views are personal.)