Zee blackmail case: Indian media must seize this moment

When the Radia tapes scam broke out in Indian journalism towards the end of 2010, NDTV promoter Prannoy Roy had his Barkha Dutt moment as did Hindustan Times in the case of its star editor-columnist, Vir Sanghvi.

There were incriminating voice recordings of Barkha and Vir indicating serious ethical lapses unbecoming of journalists. And the question asked was whether their employers had set an example by respecting the highest standards of ethics in their organisations.

Nearly 18 months later, when the noted Indian-American journalist and author, Fareed Zakaria, was summarily suspended by Time and CNN for plagiarism, many in the Indian media compared this with the soft approach of the Indian news establishments in the Radia Tapes case. The general view was that the two journalists would have been sacked had they been working for an organisation like the BBC.

 Zee blackmail case: Indian media must seize this moment

Naveen Jindal. Reuters

Indian journalism today stands confronted by the Rs 100 crore Zee News-Jindal extortion case which is unprecedented in its scale and enormity. While no one can prejudge the case-was it an extortion case, as alleged by Jindal, or a case of attempted bribery, as Zee alleges?-it nevertheless brings with it a new dimension to corruption in the Indian media. And it throws challenging questions on how effectively will India deal with this perversion in the media which can rob our democracy of its vitality.

After the unethical practice of paid news became institutionalised in many news establishments across the country, some news organisations chose to go deeper into the gutter. Some resorted to subtle forms of blackmail as a standard practice in desperation for revenue. The Zee-Jindal case thus draws attention to this ugly reality with considerable impact.

In a dramatic press conference on Thursday, Congress MP and businessman Naveen Jindal alleged that two senior journalists of Zee News and Zee Business had tried to extract advertising commitments of Rs 100 crore over five years in exchange for suppressing negative reports about Jindal Steel and Power Ltd.'s (JSPL's) alleged involvement in the Coalgate scam. The Congress MP, who had already filed a criminal case with the Delhi Police, also released video footage of a sting operation carried out on the Zee journalists.

While Zee TV has accused JSPL of trying to bribe their journalists and doctoring the tapes, the Broadcast Editors' Association (BEA) on Thursday suspended Zee News Editor Sudhir Chaudhary after it was convinced of gross ethical misconduct by Chaudhary.

"After having satisfied itself that all possible and credible sources of information had been heard and investigated and all available material on the issue perused, the three-member fact-finding committee unanimously reached the conclusion that Sudhir Choudhary is found to have acted in a manner that is unbecoming of an editor and in a fashion that is prejudicial to the interest and objects of the BEA," the association said in a statement. Chaudhary in his statement termed his suspension as "unfair".

How has the Indian media reacted to this episode?

Much to the credit of leading Indian editors and promoters of media houses, there was no suppression or dilution of news relating to a member of their fraternity, as has happened far too often in the past. For example, there was considerable hesitation among editors to name fellow editors involved in the Radia tapes scam, till the story was broken by two magazines. This time around, the Zee-Jindal story was out soon after the FIR was filed and featured promptly and prominently by most news channels after Jindal's press conference.

Most newspapers carried the story prominently; in Pune, the exceptions were DNA-which belongs to the Zee group-and the leading Marathi daily, Sakal.

Unscrupulous media houses have been known to indulge in blackmail for private gains. Most establishments succumb to such pressures or work out compromises out of fear of the media's destructive capability. As Jindal said in his press conference, he refused to succumb to the fear factor and instead went on the offensive with a sting on the Zee journalists.

This case will be discussed with passion in media establishments and journalism schools across the country, hopefully with lessons learnt. Exemplary and contrasting unethical practices in the media ought to be discussed by one and all because the strength and purity of our media practices has a strong bearing on the strength and purity of our democracy. Fareed Zakaria was temporarily suspended by Time and CNN because these media houses believe in the gold standard of ethics in journalism.

This same gold standard was seen in the sentencing of former McKinsey CEO Rajat Gupta when US District Court Judge JedS Rakoff observed: ".... The world is full of examples of good men who did bad things.... When you get caught you'll go to jail.... Meaningful punishment is necessary to reaffirm society's need to see justice triumphant."

The Zee TV-Jindal case is far too important for us to be allowed a silent burial through a compromise. The guilty must be punished and a worthy example set before society, just as we expect in the various corruption cases plaguing India today.

(Disclosure: This journalist has worked previously for DNA. Firstpost is published by Network18, which runs TV channels that compete with Zee group channels. The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not those of Network 18 or its promoters)

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 13:09:19 IST