Dangerous deception

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Are any means justified to capture people hiding from the law?

By  Sevanti Ninan

Illustration: Anand Naorem

JOURNALISTS IN India and elsewhere have masqueraded as defence equipment agents and political party researchers (TEHELKA), representatives of a small manufacturers’ association (Cobrapost), a student (India Live), beggars (The West Australian), and as police (Arab News). The issue is one of using deception to get information. Not that different in theory from the practice increasingly adopted by investigators and policemen the world over of posing as journalists to gain access to those eluding the law. Why, then, are we jolted when we find others impersonating us to achieve a professional goal?

What happened in West Bengal last weekend is rare enough here to seem like a first for India. If you were a journalist reading that news item on the morning of 27 September, the sentence leapt out at you. When the state police arrested Chhatradar Mahato at Lalgarh on September 26, they did so by pretending to be journalists. Mahato is the leader of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities and became a wanted man during the Lalgarh siege.

Asked to help, local journalists led the impersonators (who posed as journalists from Singapore) to their quarry. They turned out to be policemen who had been working under this cover for two months.

When both media and police seek access to Maoists with completely different objectives, this incident boggles the mind. The police could argue that Mahato is a wanted man and their impersonation served a public purpose. Should we buy that? Can they gain access to underground extremists by posing as doctors? Any ethical reservations there?

Exactly a Sunday earlier, full-page advertisements telling us that Naxalites were murderers appeared in newspapers everywhere. P Chidambaram’s ministry has evidently decided to use the media to fight Naxalism. Advertising campaigns and stories giving the government version are pretty much what the term ‘using media’ has meant so far. But with this development, we have a new definition.

Policemen and investigators impersonating journalists are becoming fairly common, internationally. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that the French military officials who were abducted from their hotel in Somalia in July this year had posted as journalists. In November 2007, Israeli policemen admitted that several officers had impersonated a television news crew during an operation against a Palestinian. In every case and in every country, professional media organisations have protested vociferously. That will happen here too.

Why is a detective or cop posing as a reporter worse than a reporter posting as a small businessman or a political party worker? Because information gathering is at the core of what the media does and people need to believe that journalists are doing an objective job, not providing cover for some other purpose. What will a reporter seeking access to a Naxal, a militant, or an underground person have to do hereafter to prove that they are a bona fide reporter, not a state official in disguise?

Can cops arrest underground extremists by posing as doctors? Any ethical reservations there?

If this becomes acceptable strategy for either state or non state actors, it strikes at the trust the hunted everywhere repose in the press. The West Bengal police got their idea from tracking the steady stream of interviews Mahato gave. They are now congratulating themselves.

The press corps needs to protest. The operation will give other security forces elsewhere in the country ideas unless they are immediately forbidden by the government from using this ploy. But something tells me that this government will see this practice as the lesser evil.

The author is a senior journalist

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