On Thursday morning, Indian Express on its front page carried a sprawling cover story on the Ishrat Jahan encounter case — the newspaper managed to record Union Home Ministry official BK Prasad coaching a witness on what questions to expect and how to answer those questions.
The questions, related to the probe into the missing documents, in the Ishrat Jahan case went like this: Did he see the Ishrat paper, to which the witness, Ashok Kumar, Joint Secretary (Parliament, Hindi Division and Nodal Officer for monitoring of court cases) was to reply that he hadn't seen it.
What happened was this.
Indian Express had called Prasad, who is the Addl Secretary (Foreigners), to ask him about the government's decision to deny visa to Dolkun Isa, a Germany-based Uighur activist. The report mentioned that the journalist went ahead and recorded the conversation to ensure "accuracy" and "to quote" the ministry's remarks "verbatim". While on the subject, Prasad reportedly put the journalist on hold and had a telephone conversation on the side, concerning the missing documents in the Ishrat case. The journalist went ahead and recorded this conversation as well.
Indian Express is known for its investigative journalism — recently, the paper handled the Indian investigation of the Panama Papers, besides being known for covering the Gujarat riots in 2002 and dating back to the Emergency where Arun Shourie and the Indian Express were known to have uncovered corruption and exposed major scandals, including the Maharashtra cement scam that saw Chief Minister Abdul Rahman Antulay resign.
This report follows that pattern as well; that of outstanding journalism that makes an impact.
However, if you think about it, the penny finally drops when you realise that the journalist who recorded the other conversation was just lucky enough to have eavesdropped on it. In fact, it's actually puzzling why BK Prasad did not cut short his conversation with the journalist before proceeding to talk to Ashok Kumar on the missing Ishrat papers. It boggles the mind to think that the minister kept the journalist on hold while speaking of a controversy which has got many prominent leaders on tenterhooks.
Does one man's purpose make for another man's story?
Is that the case with Indian Express? In an interview with Scroll, former editor Shekhar Gupta echoed the same view, calling it a "valid concern" and that they (at Express) established a principle that the story should not be published unless you have got both sides of the story.
According to The Indian Express, BK Prasad was sent an email questionnaire from the paper and was told about the recording.
Does that mean Prasad wasn't informed by the journalist about the recording? A 1997 Supreme Court verdict says that phone tapping is an offence while Section 65B of Indian Evidence Act maintains that phone recordings can be used as evidence. But it's basic journalistic ethics to let the person know you're recording them; they're on the record.
Prasad later said that he did contact many officers over phone and in person, asking them to appear for inquiry or to fix a convenient date for the same, during which the other person, he said, would've naturally wanted to know the nature of questions that would be posed to them. He added that the conversation then would've been in that context — of clarifying any doubts about the inquiry. Although, Prasad did not seem to have refuted that this conversation took place entirely.
The probe which is being carried out by Prasad said that the missing documents in the Ishrat Jahan case were removed knowingly or unknowingly, or misplaced in September 2009, reported The Hindu. Congress leader P Chidambaram was the then Home Minister. It added that the papers went missing when they were sent from Chidambaram's office to the joint secretary D Diptivilasa’s office in 2009.
Prasad, who led one-man inquiry committee, on Wednesday, submitted the report where it said that four of the five missing documents continue to be untraceable. The panel said that as per the then Joint Secretary, the papers were part of the file which went to his seniors but not found when the file returned to him.
Chidambaram, on Thursday, accused the Modi government of creating a "fake controversy" over two affidavits filed in the Ishrat Jahan case and preparing a "doctored" report on the missing files. The Congress leader said the news report completely vindicated the position that he had taken on the two affidavits. The first affidavit (6 August, 2009) disclosed the "intelligence inputs" that had been shared by the central government with the state government.
Chidambaram said Judge SP Tamang in his report (7 September, 2009) found that Ishrat Jahan and three others had been killed in a "fake encounter".