Do not spare law-breaking journalists; celebrate the investigative lot that makes this country a thriving democracy; the Modi government is doing the opposite

That Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had to tweet on the issue of Unique Identification Authority of India’s First Information Report against “unknown persons” for the breach of data secrecy is evidence enough to suggest that the Narendra Modi government has been embarrassed by the authority’s act, which was seen as an assault on the supposedly free press of the country. The embarrassment was accentuated by the fact that the section of journalists perceived as friendly to the current government questioned the police complaint, simultaneously wondering why the journalist of The Quint was not targeted for claiming, in a questionable manner, that Kulbhushan Jadhav in Pakistani custody was an Indian spy. The UIDAI seized the opportunity to quote the minister’s tweet and issue its own statement of regret. While it is true that the FIR does not name The Tribune and its reporter Rachna Khaira as the accused, a greater question is whether it would not have been wiser on the part of the Aadhaar card-making agency to probe the black sheep in its office. The FIR is a milder version of state reaction of the kind seen in the UPA government’s act of arresting a man who had sneaked an Electronic Voting Machine unit out of the Election Commission’s purportedly airtight security apparatus to demonstrate that the machine could be tampered with. There was never a report suggesting that the EC had taken any action against its own men who had handed the EVM unit to Hari Krishna Prasad Murli Mohan Waimuru, even as his European collaborators were not allowed to enter the national capital, and were sent back home packing from the Indira Gandhi International airport. Journalists are known to attempt breaching of systems to tell the people and the government of the day alike that the systems of the state are not foolproof. This is a more credible manner of proving that the loopholes exist rather than seeking views of ‘experts’ who would speak in favour or against the subject of the story, which can be readily dismissed as personal, subjective opinions. It is for the state to figure out why its functionaries could not, say, get hold of sandalwood smuggler Veerappan for years even as R Gopal, the editor of an otherwise obscure Nakkeeran, easily could or, how, for ages, journalists could interview fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim and his accomplices while successive Indian governments have, at best, cried foul over Pakistan not handing the absconder over. If the state denies the fourth estate a licence for such adventures, many truths will never be known.

The UIDAI’s plea to the newspaper staff for “assistance” has done little more than making the authority look silly and inefficient. And Prasad’s tweet is yet another instance projecting Modi government’s soft corner for a robotic — if not scheming — bureaucracy. The anti-people, pro-ruler, British-era system that successive Indian National Congress governments nurtured and enjoyed does not deserve the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s defence. Instead, the glorified clerks must have been held responsible for putting this government in awkward positions time and again since 2014. Modi is mistaken in his belief that the all-India cadre of the IAS could be handled as deftly as he used to deal with their (business-oriented) Gujarati counterparts. It’s of course hard to believe that the Prime Minister hasn’t got the lesson right while his government is almost in the last year of its term. On second thoughts, individual officers are not to blame. This FIR is a classic example of how (erroneously) they react to emerging situations — not for their whims and fancies but for the training they receive at the stage of initiation of their jobs. This is, therefore, yet another example that points at the need for administrative reforms.

Certainly, the notion that Modi is anti-media is a creation of the section of journalists that has been pathologically averse to him for a decade-and-a-half. However, instances such as this FIR help in furthering the myth of his detractors’ making. The delinquent here are an inalienable part of the executive whom the government can no longer consider to be members of its team to fight the opposition. The reliance on a massive social media support has its limitations because this parallel medium merely reacts to mainstream journalism and, thus, newspapers and television channels continue to set the agenda every day. If the ruler of 19 States, the BJP, must tell the cops how to treat citizens better, it must also issue to the babus a ‘Media — Handle With Care’ manual. Finally, a clear distinction between law-breaking and investigative scribes must be made. Do not spare the former; celebrate the latter who make this country a thriving democracy. But that begs the question: Why are the cases of the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Board of Direct Taxes against NDTV moving at a snail’s pace? To suggest that The Tribune is an offender in the eyes of the law (or even that it is hostile to the BJP) is a big laugh.