Show some sensitivity: Besides right to liberty, every citizen has a right to reputation. Both agencies and media need to remember this

The Sushant Singh Rajput saga has finally receded from prime time TV and newspaper headlines. But, not before his hapless girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty was arrested and later released on bail by a Bombay high court order that was damning for the arresting agency, namely the Narcotics Control Bureau.

The youngster, in the interim, remained incarcerated for almost a month, which silenced the public frenzy against her whipped up by a crazed media. Mercifully, the dust seems to have settled on the case for the moment.

Uday Deb

A few issues, however, continue to rankle. It is baffling why the ED stepped in. Where were the millions reportedly laundered that had necessitated their involvement? What extra did the CBI bring to the table that the local police had not already done? The NCB, an agency created to go into large-scale drug trafficking across national and international borders, was looking into miniscule amounts of cannabis exchanging hands in Bollywood parties.

And, lo and behold, it went to the extent of arresting Rhea et al seemingly on specious grounds. Many case laws lay down the circumstances under which an arrest can or should be made. Reasonable justification that such action is necessary and justified is imperative.

Arrests should be made only when the accused is likely to abscond and evade the processes of law; or when she is given to violent behaviour and likely to commit further offences if not brought under restraint. An arrest should not be made just because it is lawful for the law enforcement officer to do so. Arguably, Rhea’s arrest did not meet any one of these criteria.

Also, does the justice system of the country and its media have any regard for the reputation of its citizens? Or, are people’s reputations theirs for the asking – to be trampled on with impunity?

In Shakespeare’s play Othello the character Iago makes many statements referring to the importance of reputation. “Good name in a man or woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls”, says he to the protagonist. He adds: “… he that filches from me my good name robs me … and makes me poor indeed.” The Bard, through Iago’s character, underscores the value of good reputation, a treasure built over several years painstakingly but lost in no time by a mindless action. It is an invaluable asset, unmatched by material things, and to rob someone of it should be a grave offence.

Yet we find today a recurring trend of a TRP crazy media cutting loose in cases where celebrities are involved. Besides launching parallel investigations and sting operations, it even delivers verdicts that stick in the minds of gullible viewers. Who cares if reputations are gutted and good names singed in the bargain? And then, everyone moves on as if nothing happened.

Unarguably, every citizen, besides the right to liberty, possesses the ‘right to reputation’ as well. Her reputation lives a very real existence apart from her, representing the collective mental construct everyone shares about her, a construct based not only on her own actions but also on the perceptions of her actions.

A good reputation navigates her through life, soothes out the journey and a bad one causes doors to slam in her face. Hasn’t the time come, therefore, for stringent regulatory mechanisms to rein in the media that robs citizens of their hard-earned reputation? If laws can prevent the media from taking names of victims of sexual offences or of juvenile offenders, surely a regulatory regime can stop it from conducting public trials declaring someone guilty, even before she is tried under the law.

Not everyone has the resources to file defamation suits against media houses and their star anchors. We should have laws in-built into our system to prevent the sort of damage that was caused to the psyche and reputation of a promising youngster in the prime of her youth. Because today it is Rhea, tomorrow it could be one of us.

Since the government has failed to take necessary steps to create a regulatory regime for the media, the judiciary has, mercifully, stepped in. A division bench of the Bombay high court, hearing a bunch of PILs seeking regulation of media trials in the context of the SSR case, in their order dated October 29 observed, “If the person is actually innocent, excessive media reporting can damage her reputation.” The court has expressed its intent to lay down guidelines on the next date of hearing to control the media from conducting parallel investigation and trial.

That said, we should not forget that public emotions could be played up to the advantage of the accused as well. Recently, certain activists, apprehensive of their imminent arrest in a serious offence, sought to portray themselves as victims of the divisive politics of the day. The attempt was clearly to muster enough public support to prevent arrest and prosecution.

The police, however, stuck to their guns and pressed charges. The fact that no relief was forthcoming even from higher courts has put paid to their efforts to use popular public narrative to escape the dragnet of justice.

In balance, a robust mechanism is necessary to prevent the media from trifling with people’s reputations. Equally, our agencies should show more sensitivity towards citizens’ fair names. And, finally, media should be wary of those attempting to evade legal action against themselves by using it to whip up public sympathy. These ideas might look like pipe dreams, but they are eminently doable.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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