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A gotcha trial by media

Even as the law takes its course in the ‘Tehelka’ case,media and political leaders need to introspect.

Written by B.G. Verghese |
December 3, 2013 1:39:00 am

Even as the law takes its course in the ‘Tehelka’ case,media and political leaders need to introspect.

Any misdemeanour merits punishment that fits the crime as adjudicated by due process,which is central to a democratic society. However,what we have seen over the past two weeks in the Tehelka matter has been a gotcha trial by media that has been judgemental,sanctimonious and taunting about Tarun Tejpal,the owner-editor,and Shoma Chaudhury,former managing editor of the journal. The one has been arrested and faces investigation before trial in Goa,the scene of his alleged rape of a junior colleague,while the other was savagely hounded until she resigned.

Rape cannot be condoned. The young journalist,who complained of an ordeal at the hands of her employer at Tehelka’s annual THiNK fest on November 7-8 at a hotel in Goa,deserves every bit of support and sympathy for the searing indignity and violation of her body that she suffered. So much is admitted and is common ground. Beyond that,the story that has captured the headlines and commentaries has become something of a witch-hunt against Tejpal served up minute-by-minute,hour-by-hour as a heady breaking news cocktail of conjecture,insinuation and self-righteousness garnished with a pinch of malice served by competing media bartenders.

There are two relevant aspects of the episode,moral and legal. What Tarun Tejpal did was morally absolutely wrong. The traumatised young woman immediately confided in three of her colleagues who were also in Goa but otherwise went about her occasions normally. She only wrote a detailed complaint to Shoma Chaudhury 10 days later,around November 18. She cannot be faulted for this delay as she was still getting over the shock and needed to get home to her family and think things through before proceeding further.

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An outraged and understandably traumatised Shoma immediately confronted Tarun with the complainant’s letter and sought an explanation. He was contrite and,in recognition of the fact that even “drunken banter” and a “misreading of signals” was shameful and condemnable,tendered an unconditional apology to the young woman for the two encounters in the hotel elevator on consecutive evenings. The THiNKfest continued and concluded without a whisper of anything untoward having happened,though both episodes were at least partly captured on closed-circuit TV cameras.

Shoma Chaudhury was faulted on four counts. The first was Tehelka’s failure to set up a standing sexual harassment committee headed by a credible woman from outside the organisation as recommended (not mandated,it would appear) by the Supreme Court’s guidelines issued after the Vishaka judgment in 1997. The second was in not immediately filing a criminal complaint with the police on hearing from the complainant. The third was in seeking internal closure to the episode after the young lady received Tejpal’s unconditional apology and self-imposed “lacerating punishment”.And,finally,for subsequently talking about “two versions” after Tejpal’s mea culpa leaked to the press.

Shoma has admitted to a lapse in not setting up a harassment committee until after the event,by when,with Urvashi Butalia invited to be the chair,the purpose was nullified by the Goa government’s police investigation and the intervention of the National Commission for Women. How many media houses or others have set up harassment committees in the workplace? Even the SC does not have such a body,as seemingly testified by the complaint of a former law intern against a retired SC judge,A.K. Ganguly.

A police complaint was not immediately filed by Tehelka,pending an office investigation that entailed hearing the other side,and on account of what appeared to be a mutually acceptable internal settlement as described,without either party or the journal being further mortified and publicly scandalised. Now the poor girl has inevitably been made to suffer great and continuing public ignominy with her name becoming known even before being otherwise revealed,wrongly,by Tejpal’s counsel and the BJP spokesperson and lawyer,Meenakshi Lekhi. Tejpal has likewise been pilloried as a monster,an egotistical power-seeker,a poor paymaster though a secret tycoon-in-the-making,and a political and social climber. His journalism has been questioned by some as immoral,magisterial and politically motivated muck-raking by entrapment rather than investigation.

The assumption of mutually accepted closure by Shoma proved mistaken as the girl felt fobbed off by a token apology and self-penance. With the leak of the girl’s letter,the scornful media cry went up that justice demanded punishment (for rape,under law),and not a self-selected “penance” of six months.

It was only after the ruckus following the leak of Tarun’s apology and the young woman’s complaint that a harassed Shoma,responding to persistent questions,referred to there being “two versions”. This immediately got the media and political busybodies unfairly to accuse her of “cover-up” and doubletalk. Her credibility questioned and alleged complicity with Tarun,Shoma Chaudhury resigned,leaving Tehalka rudderless and without editorial leadership,facing possible closure with five other senior staff having also quit.

Shoma Chaudhury,a highly talented,honoured and honourable journalist,has sadly been sacrificed through the process of media trial. She followed a moral compass and knowingly did no wrong. Hopefully,she will not be lost to Indian journalism. Nor did Tarun Tejpal hide or run away. He admitted his guilt in unequivocal terms,offered the girl an unqualified apology and awarded himself no small punishment that would have in any case brought his “indiscretion” into the glare of publicity. He erred,but stood up to face the consequences of his actions. It took moral courage to do so. His subsequent defence in the face of the media onslaught and political efforts to arraign him is understandable. The demise of Tehelka too would be a real media loss.

The Goa police and BJP chief minister,Manohar Parrikar,both exhibited a rare zeal not noticed before. BJP spokesmen,long chafing over Tehelka’s exposure of the defence purchase scam (Operation West End),Gujarat 2002 and other matters,gleefully grabbed the opportunity for revenge. Lekhi’s retraction of her original tweet with the Tehelka victim’s last name,contradicts her statement to The Indian Express an hour earlier admitting her “mistake”. Another BJP leader,Vijay Jolly,with a gang of BJP rowdies,vandalised Shoma Chaudhury’s nameplate outside her home,blanketing it with black paint and scrawling “accused” against her name. The BJP later issued a bland statement disassociating the party from this “individual” initiative.

Feminists and criminologists are opposed to any effort to soften the rape law. By a recent amendment,the term “rape” has been widened to include forms of sexual molestation short of forcible sexual intercourse without consent,with the punishment ranging from a few years to life imprisonment.

The law must now take its course and the victim will face cross-examination regarding the alleged “two versions”. But the same law also provides for conciliation at the request of the woman. This is probably what Shoma had intended in order to avoid further trauma.

As the case proceeds,maximalists will be pitted against those who would uphold the moral as much as the legal compass. Meanwhile,the media and political leaders would do well to spend time in honest introspection.

The writer is fellow,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi.

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First published on: 03-12-2013 at 01:39:00 am
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