Should the media discuss the question of ethics and sting operations when a journalist has been slapped with a draconian law like the Official Secrets Act? Or will such a discussion undermine the position of a journalist who was trying to unearth a story?

In my view, these are not mutually exclusive choices. So even as the Army’s response in the case involving the expose of the sahayak system is unwarranted, I believe some introspection by the media on the means used to expose certain stories should also be discussed.

On March 28, the Nashik police filed a First Information Report against Poonam Agarwal, associate editor, investigations, of The Quint, a news website, based on a complaint it received from the Army. This was in response to Agarwal’s story of February 24, exposing the sahayak or orderly system that continues to operate in the Army despite the recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that it be scrapped.

Under this system, soldiers are assigned to senior Army officers and are expected to assist them. Such assistance, however, has been extended to getting these men to do all kinds of personal and even menial jobs.

The investigation

Agarwal says she got the idea for the story when Lance Nayak Yagya Pratap Singh posted a video on his Facebook page on January 13 complaining about the sahayak system. Agarwal established contacts that led her to the Deolali cantonment of the Indian Army in Maharashtra’s Nashik district.

Using a hidden camera, she recorded the testimonies of some of these sahayaks. Her report and video were published on February 24. Three days later, she sent the link to the Army with an email asking questions about the sahayak system and whether the Army intended to end it as recommended by the parliamentary committee.

The Army public relations officer, Aman Anand, responded to each of her questions and explained that the sahayak system was “an instrument of team building”. He also wrote that any “ill treatment” of a subordinate was an offence under the Army Act.

This exchange took place a few days before the body of Lance Naik Roy Mathew, one of the men Agarwal had interviewed, was found hanging in an abandoned shed in the cantonment. It was suspected he had committed suicide although his family has alleged foul play.

Since then, there have been several developments leading up to the FIR against Agarwal, but not against the senior editors of the website that employs her who would have cleared her story.

A grab from the Quint video.
A grab from the Quint video.

Inconsistencies by Army

One of the major inconsistencies in statements by the Army, and the complainant, on the basis of which the FIR was lodged, was whether the identities of the men interviewed were exposed in the video. Agarwal has stated that their identity had been adequately masked. The Ministry of Defence, in a press release dated March 3, reiterates this and states:

“The identities of the Army personnel involved in the clipping was hidden, and thereby not known to the Army. Hence, there is no question of any inquiry that could have been ordered against the deceased.”

Yet, Lance Naik Naresh Kumar Amitchand Jatav, who filed the police complaint about Agarwal on March 27, and acknowledges that he is a sahayak, says that he was summoned by senior officers on February 25, a day after the video was published on The Quint’s website.

He says he saw the video on February 24 and that his face was blurred in it. Therefore, if the Army did not know the identities of the men in the video, why was Jatav summoned? Was Roy Mathew also similarly summoned?

Jatav says the officers admonished him but let him go. But in the course of the questioning, they got him to reveal who facilitated Agarwal’s entry into the campus. According to the complaint, she came with a Kargil war veteran, Deep Chand, who introduced her to the soldiers as his relative.

The details of this entire episode appear here and here.

The video that ostensibly led to all this was taken off The Quint’s website following Roy’s suicide, and this writer has not seen it.

A few questions

While this case will continue to unravel, it is already evident that there are many unanswered questions. But given the iron wall built around the armed forces, and the ultra-nationalist hype that dominates the public discourse in India today, any questions about the Army and its conduct will be predictably be dubbed as “anti-national”. We might never know the full truth.

Still, there are a couple of questions that the Army needs to answer.

First, why has the Army reacted in this way by using the Official Secrets Act, one of the most draconian laws, against a journalist? After all, the sahayak system is not a state secret. It is already under scrutiny.

Second, how did the officers in Deolali know which men had spoken to Agarwal if, on its own admission, the Army accepts that their identities were blurred in the video? Did it question other sahayaks, apart from Jatav who filed the complaint? How would we know whether these men were threatened with a court martial or some other punishment?

A grab from the Quint video.
A grab from the Quint video.

Media ethics

At the same time, there are some other questions that need to be addressed by the media in general and The Quint in particular.

Some in the media have justified the use of hidden cameras and recorders saying that this was the only way to expose the powerful. Some of the instances cited to support the claim are Operation West End, the sting operation carried out by Tehelka magazine in 2001, exposing defence deals and the nexus with politicians, as well as journalist-turned-politician Ashish Khetan’s sting on former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi that established their role in the 2002 Gujarat massacre.

However, this type of journalism, if it can even be called that, remains highly debatable, as there have been many major media exposes where such methods have not been used.

What is relevant in this instance is that given the powerlessness of the sahayaks within the Indian Army, is it right to use the sting tactic on them, even if their faces are blurred? In a tightly-monitored space like an Army cantonment, it is unlikely that men who have identified themselves as sahayaks could have escaped being identified.

Also, while Lance Nayak Yagya Pratap Singh, who complained about the sahayak system on his Facebook page, did so knowing the risks, Roy Mathew and the other soldiers who appeared in The Quint’s video, had no idea that they were being filmed. Was getting the story more important than ensuring that they were not penalised?

Even though the Army is powerful, and virtually impossible to penetrate, should the most vulnerable in its ranks be the subjects of a sting operation in order to expose the system? Surely the media must be ultra cautious about using such techniques, whatever the justification, if it means exposing the weak to risks they cannot handle, and that too without their consent.

So even as journalists, especially the Network of Women in Media with which this writer is associated, have rallied behind Agarwal and protested the use of the Official Secrets Act against her, the media needs to question the use of hidden cameras against the powerless.