The Editors Guild of India has condemned the move by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to file an FIR against Tribune reporter Rachna Khaira for her report that unknown agents had provided her access to Aadhaar’s demographic database for Rs 500.
The Guild said it is “deeply concerned over reports” of the FIR in the Crime Branch of Delhi Police. The Sunday Express reported that Khaira, alongwith others, has been booked under IPC sections 419 (punishment for cheating under impersonation), 420 (cheating), 468 (forgery), 471 (using a forged document) and under sections of the IT Act and the Aadhaar Act.
The Guild said that it “condemns UIDAI’s action to have the Tribune reporter booked by the police as it is clearly meant to browbeat a journalist whose investigation on the matter was of great public interest”. Calling UIDAI’s action unfair and unjustified, it called the FIR “a direct attack on the freedom of the press”.
The Guild stated that “instead of penalising the reporter, UIDAI should have ordered a thorough internal investigation into the alleged breach and made its findings public”. It demanded intervention of the concerned ministry to get the cases against the reporter withdrawn, “apart from conducting an impartial investigation into the matter”.
The Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps and Press Association also expressed “strong objection and condemnation” on UIDAI’s action.
“If there is no breach, what is the offence they have supposed to have committed? Rather than addressing the loopholes which would actually ensure safety and security of the data and allay the general concerns about this, the UIDAI has chosen to persecute those whose actions appear to have been only in public interest,” they said in a statement.
The statement called the UIDAI move “intimidatory, obstructionist and inimical to the pursuit of free, fair and independent journalism”. Amnesty International also tweeted against UIDAI’s move, saying that “filing a criminal case against a journalist for exposing weaknesses in a massive government programme is an outrageous attack on freedom of expression”.
The UIDAI issued a statement defending its move. It said that “an impression is being created in media that UIDAI is targeting the media or whistleblowers” or “shooting the messenger”. It stated that it was “not at all true”. UIDAI said that “though there was no breach of Aadhaar biometric database, because UIDAI takes every criminal violation seriously, it is for the act of unauthorized access, criminal proceedings have been initiated”.
The parent body of the Aadhaar project said it “respects free speech including the freedom of press and media”. It said, however, that “whenever a crime is noticed, the concerned person is required to report in the form of FIR… It does not necessarily mean that everyone mentioned in the FIR is a culprit unless after a thorough and fair investigation the person is chargesheeted and proved to be guilty beyond doubt in the court of law”.
Invoking the Supreme Court’s judgment in Rajat Prasad v CBI case (2014), on a sting operation involving Union minister Dalip Singh Judeo, UIDAI said “whether the actions of any journalist in committing an offence is for a public interest or part of a journalistic exercise has to be ascertained on the basis of evidence recorded in the case”.
The Tribune report, dated January 3, had stated: “It took just Rs 500, paid through Paytm, and 10 minutes in which an ‘agent’ of the group running the racket created a ‘gateway’ for this correspondent and gave a login ID and password.
Lo and behold, you could enter any Aadhaar number in the portal, and instantly get all particulars that an individual may have submitted to the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India), including name, address, postal code (PIN), photo, phone number and email.”