Lance Naik Roy Mathew's death raises disturbing queries about media's ethical and moral guidelines

The disturbing chain of events that led to the eventual death of Lance Naik Roy Mathew raises some crucial questions on media ethics and moral framework that journalists work under.

Roy Mathew. Image courtesy: @Ghost_of_army/Twitter

Roy Mathew. Image courtesy: @Ghost_of_army/Twitter

In this case, the reporter of a news portal performed a sting operation on jawans to expose the vagaries of Indian army's British-era 'sahayak' or buddy-system.

The purported aim was to show how senior officers taking advantage of the colonial legacy exploit their orderlies. If getting a 'scoop' was the short-term goal, the larger objective seems to have been a desire to force social justice into military ranks.

Before we examine the feasibility of such an attempt, it is important to make a distinction between raising a debate over the sahayak system and the way in which a journalist attempts to do so.

Sting journalism has long been the subject of fevered debates because it operates in a grey area between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, ethical and non-ethical and has at its motive the dubious parable of 'end justifying the means'.

In the 2012 Leveson Report on the general culture, practice and ethics of British media following the News International phone hacking controversy, Lord Justice Leveson commented on the "journalistic dark arts" that have been employed by some British tabloids to gather information.

In defence of sting journalism, however, there is a case to be made that sometimes free media needs to "apply dark arts" to serve public interest, as UK's former information Commissioner Christopher Graham told the Leveson Inquiry in a hearing.

But the operative word in this case is 'public interest'. Even if we are to justify sting journalism in the limited case of public interest, the question to ask is which 'wider public interest' was being served when a journalist decided to sting an army jawan to "expose the sahayak system"? Did the practice, regressive or useful as it may be, involve a criminal act? Was this a case of misleading the public? Did it go against public interest or pose any grave risk to people at large?

If the sting operation does not satisfactorily answer these questions, then the moral shield no longer exists. The act then becomes part of an ethical quagmire. Moreover, stings are done to show truth to power. In this case, the individuals at the receiving end of the covert ploy were jawans from the lowest rung of the army who were said to be 'victims' of the system with neither the agency nor power to combat a negative fallout of events.

"Unless," as Shiv Aroor rightly points out in his piece for Daily O, "a person is being stung to establish his or her own activities, what happened to protecting the identity of your subject? In this case, the jawan was an oblivious individual who had no idea he was speaking to a journalist, about a topic that was very much part of his world. Stinging a jawan, in my view, is to manipulate a vulnerability with no application of sense or heart."

Was the identity of the jawans adequately protected — a basic necessity?

The video — uploaded on 23 February by the news website along with an accompanying report and subsequently removed — showed several jawans performing menial jobs for their superiors. Though it appears that an attempt was made to conceal the identities of soldiers who unknowingly spoke to the journalist, according to Roy Mathew's brother John, it was not enough.

Speaking to the Indian Express from their ancestral house in Kerala's Kollam district, John said although his brother's face was not visible, "one could easily identify Roy from the visuals". He told the newspaper that Mathew was "under severe tension" after the video was uploaded, and added, damningly: "The media cheated him… His family has lost their sole breadwinner… Roy never knew that the journalist was secretly shooting him."

From the accounts of his family members, it is clear by now that Roy was mortally afraid of being identified in the sting video. His wife Fini said that the soldier had called up his family members after the clip went viral. "He called me about what was being shown on the TV channels and was crying. I told him that everything will be alright and not to worry. After that I tried calling him again but his phone was switched off. I need to know what happened to my husband," Fini had told news agency ANI before the soldier's partially decomposed body was discovered from an abandoned barrack in Deolali Cantonment of Maharashtra on Thursday.

Was this the 'death of a whistleblower', as a section of the media has claimed? Who is a whistleblower? According to Oxford Dictionary, 'whistleblower' is "a person who informs on a person or organization engaged in an illicit activity." Lance Naik Roy Mathew did not wish to be a whistleblower. The 33-year-old gunner was distraught that his name was revealed.

Tomas Kutty, who identified himself as Mathew's uncle, told Daily Mail: "Our son lost his life by speaking to a journalist…. He called on  23, 24 and finally on 25th February, around 8 pm. He called his wife and was crying. He felt harassed. He feared his career would be ruined because his conversation with the journalist was broadcast and he was asked to explain his actions by the army."

This is a heavy cross for the media to bear.

It also raises questions of the Army which has claimed in a official statement that “the identities of the army personnel in (video) clipping were hidden, and thereby not known to the army. Hence, there is no question of any enquiry that could have been ordered against the deceased."

Not surprisingly, the Army has put the onus of Mathew's suicide on the media, adding in the communiqué that "preliminary investigations have now revealed that the suicide may be the result of a series of events which were triggered by media personnel managing to video-graph the deceased by asking leading questions on his duty as buddy without his knowledge. It is very likely that the guilt factor of letting down his superiors or conveying false impression to an unknown individual led him to take the extreme step."

The truth of Lance Naik Roy Mathew's tragic death can only be known after a thorough inquiry is conducted but the article will remain incomplete if we don't discuss the 'sahayak system'.

How feasible is media's attempt to introduce social justice amid military ranks? Driven by a desire to install top-down libertarian values in every sphere of Indian polity, the media seems to be suffering from either a staggering ignorance or indifference about the way state's institutions function.

The Army operates within the strict code of a rules-based system. It places the greatest importance on a hierarchical chain of command. By doing the sting, the media upset this delicate balance and interjected an element of insubordination which could be a fatal flaw in any army. When your life depends on your superior or subordinate through a coordinated chain of action under a situation of extremely high pressure, even the whiff of insubordination is lethal. Therefore, it calls for a different set of standards than the one that governs civil society firmaments.

The military establishment cannot be equated with any other civil society institution and exceptions must be made for the different paradigm they work under. The much vilified buddy system (unless abused) fosters teamwork, increases camaraderie and accountability within the ranks. Whether or not it is outdated needs to be decided by the army itself. It is robust and conscientious enough to deal with the issue honestly. Trying to introduce social justice into this structure is not libertarianism but extreme callousness.


Published Date: Mar 04, 2017 04:42 pm | Updated Date: Mar 04, 2017 04:42 pm


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