April 4, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

Let the nation beware

Almost every journalist worth the name has finished doffing his hat or blowing her kiss to the Tehelka team's work that's now baptised as "cowboy journalism". Almost every Opposition party has finished salivating with the servings of Tehelka's turkey, laced though it was with venom from two parts of the Indian Penal Code, vintage 1860. And after the commoner has finished being shocked and then confused before being bored once again -- till another sensational story will be told by the nation's oh-so honest and honourable vigilante -- the media...

It was at that moment, when the Tehelka orgasm had just about expended itself, that there came some words of sobriety and sagacity, of elderly advice, alarm almost, about the whole affair. They were provided by M K Narayanan, a former chief of the country's Intelligence Bureau. In his column of March 26, 2001 in The Asian Age, Narayanan first dropped several hints of the "Take care" variety before proclaiming "Beware" loud and clear. Thus, he wrote:-

1. "Between 'snaring ' or 'tempting' people into accepting 'gifts' or 'bribes', where a cause of action does not exist, and exposing corruption regarding specific deals, a vast gulf exists. Not to recognise the significance of this difference would be a grievous mistake.

2. "… we have the 'R K Jains' and the 'R K Guptas' indulging in cant and making the most outrageous of statements and claims. … what the 'Tehelka exposure' has done is to crassly exploit and expose to public gaze, the character flaws of individuals who were unaware that their every action and every word was being secretly taped.

3. "No one has shown any concern about the ethics of the operation and whether stilted 'exposure' of this kind can improve the system or will damage it further. The motivation of those responsible for the 'sting' has been accepted without question and a gullible public has not explored whether a hidden game plan exists in all this.

4. "Furthermore, sowing doubts leading to a rigor mortis in decision-making regarding ongoing or future defence negotiations and purchases can endanger the nation's security even as China and Pakistan engage in modernising their arsenals.

5. "Most see it as the stuff of investigative journalism. Hardly any sees it as a potential time bomb.

6. "Sting journalism is an offence in countries like the United States but here it is being hailed as an opportunity for virtue to triumph over the forces of evil. Therein lurks the danger."

And what is that danger? Narayanan's answer is that "Many foreign intelligence agencies are now adept at employing 'active measures'. Destabilisation of states and government has become both big business and also a conscious policy." Readers -- and Indian patrons of cowboy journalism -- should not snigger at that opinion as a mere old man's imagined fear. Evidence of Narayanan's assessment can be actually found in the news report by Aziz Haniffa in The Times of India web edition of March 20, 2001. We are told there that America's CIA is to "aggressively recruit" special country officers for India and Pakistan to penetrate the new weapons establishments by selling the line that the weapons programmes of the two nations posed a threat to the stability of the region.

Just how much depth and wisdom Narayanan displays can be seen by anyone who cares to look up an article on the Internet posted by B Raman, retired additional secretary, cabinet secretariat, Government of India, and presently director, Institute of Topical Studies, Chennai. The focus of that article is on the developments in the USA accompanying the use there of covert audio-visual equipment. Among those developments that need the strongest reiteration at India's Tehelka juncture are:

1. There have been complaints from human rights organisations that, apart from causing serious harm to innocent citizens, an even bigger risk associated with sting operations aimed at public corruption is the destruction of the public's confidence in government institutions.

2. After a four-year investigation of stings, a 1984 report by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights said "While investigations of public corruption may be intended to restore the public's faith in the integrity of the affected institutions, ill-conceived and poorly managed undercover operations are likely to have precisely the opposite effect."

3. Writing in the Foreign Policy (Fall 1997), John Deutch, Director of CIA, referred to the dangers of morphed images and messages being introduced into a country's radio and television systems, spreading lies and inciting the public to violence.

Now the USA is a country where liberty is most zealously sought and fought for. It is where only a couple of years ago the country's chief executive was brought live on television to answer questions on his alleged oral sex in the Oval office. It was there that in May 1974 the country's president had to resign in disgrace for trying to have a recording equipment clandestinely fixed inside the meeting venue of his adversary political party. Indeed, "freedom" is one of the most sacred words in the American consciousness. And yet, Raman writes, the US permits a sting operation only to the Federal Bureau of Investigation; no private individual, not even a journalist, has the freedom to do so.

Even the FBI's sting operations, he says, are subject to strict ground rules laid down over the years by departmental instructions and rulings of the judiciary. Four such major rules are:

1. Sting operations are to be mounted only on persons against whom some evidence of criminality exists and a sting operation is considered necessary for getting conclusive evidence. (An aside: would the past record of Maj Gen Choudhury, Jay Jaitly and Bangaru Laxman have warranted a sting in the USA?)

2. Permission for sting operations must be obtained from appropriate courts or the attorney general. This safeguard has been laid down since those who mount a sting operation themselves commit the offence of impersonation, criminal trespass and making a person commit an offence. (Emphasis added in view of Sections 415 and 417 of the Indian Penal Code)

3. Where there is evidence of editing of tapes and films, there is an automatic presumption that the recording is probably not authentic. (Aside: Are Tehelka's tapes unedited?)

4. There must be a concurrent record in writing of the various stages of the sting operation. (Aside: Has Tehelka maintained such a record for the public to see?)

Strange as it may seem to the currently cock-a-hoop media, the US supreme court's sting guideline that "…an inducement to commit a crime should not be offered unless…" was issued as long ago as December 31, 1980.

In many judgements, the US supreme court has condemned some FBI sting operations for taking advantage of the naivety, carelessness and negligence of the possibly innocent in order to make them possibly guilty.

It may also be news to our cowboy journalists that Privacy International, a Washington-based NGO, has since 1989 been drawing attention to the dangers of an uncontrolled use of clandestine video and audio equipment and closed circuit television. Privacy International says, "In a very short time, the systems have challenged some fundamental tenets of justice and created a threat of a surveillance society."

"Challenge to fundamental tenets of justice and threat of a surveillance society" -- those are the dangers that the Indian nation must beware as it lies in the midst of the Tehelka tempest.

That is why Narayanan believes that it is essential for our country's intelligence agencies to be freed from the considerable emasculation brought on them by cascading judicial pronouncements and systematic onslaught of civil libertarians and so-called "human rights activists". He wants these national intelligence agencies be allowed to play their earlier watchdog role, employ sophisticated technology for this purpose and use human assets to track clandestine activities rather than permit this space to be occupied by "self-serving" individuals.

That is also why Privacy International had wanted appropriate legislation over the industry of miniaturised audio-visual technology.

Rajiv Gandhi withdrew Congress support to Chandra Shekhar's government in 1991 because of two Haryana constables stationed outside his home. Ramakrishna Hegde lost his chief minister's status in Karnataka because of allegations that he allowed the tapping of phones of politicians. Will the current batch of politicians in the Rajya Sabha then permit mature legislation on the use of clandestine cameras and sundry? Certainly not -- not until they move from the Opposition to the Treasury benches!

Will our cowboy journalists and their cheerleaders support such legislation? Unlikely …until another Emergency induces another "crawl"! And most certainly not till they accept that, contrary to what a Star News anchor said on the idiot box, the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) is not exclusively for the media, but for every citizen of India.

Without laws and regulations, human society would be akin to jungle life. If a law is bad, get rid of it, but legally. And as long as it remains a law of the land, it is a law for all unless exceptions are provided in the law itself. Human rights are not only for sex workers and AIDS victims, for tribals and their anti-dam activists, for cops and convicts, but also for politicians, bureaucrats and defence personnel as well. Timid journalists may claim the right to label terrorists as militants, but do the intrepid among them have the divine, absolutely unfettered, right to endanger citizens' rights as well as national security?

That, really, is the fundamental issue which we must address today. Jaitly, Laxman & Co can roast in hell, for all one cares. Drive away Vajpayee, Fernandes & Co to oblivion, for all one cares. But anything ugly that casts the slightest shadow on the security of our 1.02 billion people -- that must be rooted out with the same passion with which America protects its citizens' freedom.

Arvind Lavakare

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