The Network of Women in Media, India, has called for an end to the “digital strip search” of sexual assault complainants in its detailed critique of the judgement that acquitted journalist Tarun Tejpal.

The network highlighted how Tejpal, through a Special Leave Petition filed in the Supreme Court, obtained the complainant’s mobile records, only because some of the messages and mails were cited as proof against him. “He thus ended up with access to nearly 2 lakh messages sent and received by her over several years that had no relevance whatsoever to the case,” the network added.

The Network of Women in Media said this was an invasion of privacy, more so in a rape case, where defense lawyers subject a complainant’s character to intense scrutiny. “Thus, the possibility of the accused getting access to her entire digital communication, which could then be weaponised against her, is a particular deterrent to any rape survivor who wishes to file a complaint,” the network added.

The network said: “The access Tejpal’s team got to the survivor’s phone resulted in the dredging up of material, both personal and professional, which were extraneous and irrelevant to the incident but used to degrade, demean and harass her in court.”

It spoke about how the United Kingdom had in 2020 done away with the practice of storing data from the mobile phones of rape complainants for investigation. “It is time for Indian activists and lawmakers to work towards terminating digital strip searches,” the network added.

The network demanded that those who violate the privacy of sexual assault survivors, “either by revealing to the public the identity of the survivor or by revealing humiliating details of cross-examination”, must be held accountable.

Also read: The Tejpal rape case verdict and the Goa court quest for the ‘ideal’ sexual assault victim

The journalists’ group referred to Tejpal’s acquittal as a “massive setback” to the safety of working women in the country.

The Network of Women in Media said that the order “persistently shames the survivor as though she were the one on trial”. “The judgement by Additional Sessions Judge Kshama M. Joshi sets out standards for a sterling witness and the normative look of a traumatised woman and attempts to rip into the survivor as she failed to pass any of the tests,” it added.

The group also said that the judgement disregarded the aspect of consent, a defining factor in cases of sexual assault. “In doing so, it ignores apology emails by Tejpal himself including one in which he acknowledged a ‘shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me’,” it said.

Tarun Tejpal’s acquittal

On May 21, Additional Sessions Judge Kshama Joshi at the Mapusa District and Sessions Court in Goa acquitted Tejpal in the sexual assault case. In the 527-page judgement, made available on May 25, the judge said the journalist was cleared of all charges as the complainant did not show the “kind of normative behaviour” expected from her.

“The printouts of photographs clearly proves that the prosecutrix was absolutely in a good mood, happy, normal and smiling...she did not look distressed or traumatised in any manner whatsoever though this was immediately a few minutes after she claims to have been sexually assaulted by the accused putting her in a state of panic and trauma,” the order said, while also revealing the identity of the complainant.

The Goa government moved the Bombay High Court against Tejpal’s acquittal, saying that the sessions courts judgement was “coloured by prejudice and patriarchy”.

The state government also said that the complainant was asked “scandalous, irrelevant and humiliating” questions during the cross-examination and pushed for a retrial in the case.

The case against Tejpal

The case has its origins in November 2013, when a company owned by Tejpal and some others organised an event in Goa called THINK fest, featuring discussions with leading figures. The 2013 edition was of particular interest as Hollywood actor Robert De Niro was a guest.

The complainant was then a journalist at Tehelka and had been given the task of taking care of De Niro and his daughter. The complainant alleged that Tejpal, who was then the magazine’s editor-in-chief, assaulted her twice during the festival. Both times, the assault occurred inside elevators. The first assault took place on November 7 and the second the following day.

The woman did not immediately complain to Tehelka’s management, but had on November 18, 2013, sent a detailed account of the incidents to Managing Director Shoma Chaudhary.

Following this, Tejpal sent two emails expressing his regret at the incident: one to the complainant personally and the other to the staff of Tehelka.

After the matter became public, the Goa Police took suo motu cognisance of it and registered an FIR. The police then took statements from the complainant and also got a magistrate to record her statement under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

It took almost eight years for the trial to conclude. The complainant was cross-examined only in 2019, six years after the incident.