In a rare and rather unusual development, the ministry of home affairs is moving to take legal action against two reporters of The Times of India, according to The Hindu, the Press Trust of India and The Indian Express.
The offending story–Two ITBP Jawans Injured In China Border Firing–ran on the front page of India’s most read English newspaper on 15 September. The report, by Nirmalya Banerjee in Kolkata and Prabin Kalita in Guwahati, said this was the “first incident where bullets have been fired since the landmark 1996 Sino-India agreement in which both sides pledged not to open fire, no matter what the provocation…,” and attributed the information to “a highly placed intelligence source”. “ITBP officials at its headquarters in New Delhi declined to confirm the incident,” the story said.
The TOI story was among a stream of reports and analyses in newspapers and television channels over the past month or so, about “Chinese incursions” into Indian territory. “If you’ve tuned into one of the more hawkish Indian television channels or are reading the views of the many experts on India and China, it might seem like the two countries are at each other’s throats,” the BBC noted.
During the past week, the Prime Minister, the national security adviser as well as the highest-ranking general of the Indian Army have made statements to the effect that the reports are exaggerated and there is no unusual activity on the Indo-China border.
It’s unclear what charges, if at all, the government will press against the reporters. According to PTI, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), has filed a complaint with the Delhi Police against the reporters. A spokesperson at the home ministry was unavailable for comment as were other government officials, due to a public holiday.
“We do not give comments on news items as a practice and I have nothing to say on this issue,” wrote Amit Rai, director, legal, at Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd, publisher of The Times of India, responding to an email asking for comment about the story that appeared in The Hindu. A spokesperson for BCCL did not respond to an email requesting comment.
If the matter does go to court, it might reach a stage where a court could ask the reporters to reveal their sources. “If there is a criminal charge against you, you have to defend yourself. You can refuse to reveal your sources, but then you should be prepared to go to jail,” said Prashant Bhushan, a well-known public interest lawyer in the Supreme Court of India.
Bhushan said it was high time the media was held accountable for irresponsible reporting that buys into plants by motivated sections of the society and affects national security or disrupts communal harmony. “A lot of what has been passing for journalism in this country amounts to criminal offense,” Bhushan said. “If an intelligence agency has planted this story, let the source be revealed,” he added.
B.G. Verghese, a former editor and a member of the press council, said that it would be foolish for the state to press charges. He added that while a lot of reporting on the border situation has been equally foolish and irresponsible, there were other ways to deal with the situation. “This is a political problem. It’s not wise to seek a legal solution to a political problem.” He suggested that peer pressure works well to restrain media and the government could also complain to professional associations such as the Editors’ Guild or the Press Council of India.
“My suggestion is that a reporter can be asked to reveal to a judge, privately in his chambers and not in the courtroom, what the source is. If the judge is convinced that it is a reliable source and the reporter indeed got the story from there, he or she can then decide to let the matter rest,” Verghese said.