Trial By Media


By B.G. Verghese

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 TarunTejpal, the owner-editor, and ShomaChoudhury, 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 Thinkfest on November 7-8 at a hotel in Goa, deserves every 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 commentarieshas become something of a witch-hunt against Tejpalserved 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 TarunTejpal did was morally absolutely wrong. The traumatised 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 ShomaChaudhury ten 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.

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 lady 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.

ShomaChaudhury 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 Vishakha judgement 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’smea 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 UruvashiButalia named as chair, the purpose was nullified by the Goa Government’s police investigation and the intervention of the National Women’s Council. How many media houses or others have set up Harassment Committees in the workplace? Even the Supreme Court does not have such a body, as seemingly testified by the complaint by a former law intern against a retired Supreme Court 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 whatappeared 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, MeenakshiLekhi. 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 leakage 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 leakage of Tarun’s apology and the young lady’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 double talk. Her credibility questioned and alleged complicity with Tarun,ShomaChaudhury resigned, leavingTehalka rudderless and without editorial leadership, facing possible closure with five other senior staff having also quit.

ShomaChaudhury, 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 be not lost to Indian journalism. Nor did TarunTejpal 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 have 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, ManoharParrikar, both exhibited a rare zeal not noticed before.  BJP spokesmen, long chafing over Tehelka’s exposure of the Westland arms scam, Gujarat 2002 and other matters, gleefully grabbed theopportunity for revenge.MeenakshiLekhi’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 ShomaChoudhury’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 mustnow 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.


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