Setting a new low for journalism in Kerala, the newly launched channel Mangalam TV has left not just the journalistic fraternity but the entire civil society in a state of despair and shock. What was initially thought to be a sting operation on Kerala transport minister AK Saseendran, who had allegedly made sexual advances on an unsuspecting housewife, has now emerged as a clear case of the news channel undertaking a well-planned 'honey trap' operation, involving its own staff members. Saseendran resigned soon after the clip was aired.
The resignation of a sub-editor from the channel, Al-Neema Ashraf, followed by her outburst on Facebook has revealed that the claims made by the channel were nothing but a pack of lies. It is also learned from reliable sources that the state police’s intelligence department has given an oral confirmation to state chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Wednesday, that Saseendran was brought down by a ‘honey trap’ and not because on any complaint by a woman, as alleged by the channel.
Meanwhile Firstpost contacted Ashraf, who spilled the beans on the modus operandi adopted by the channel in going after the minister.
"See, there was an investigating team constituted by the channel a few months ago and I was also a member of it initially. But then, they told us to do anything to get sensational news... I realised that it was not going in the right way. It was not the kind of journalism I could attribute to myself. So I opted out," Ashraf said.
Her Facebook posts, after stepping out of that office, give an insight into the revulsion any journalist would feel, when put under tremendous pressure to deliver stories using completely unethical means.
Ashraf says that not only as a journalist but even as a woman, it was untenable for her to continue in that organisation. Her revelation only goes to substantiate that the 'tried and tested' tool of yellow journalism was clearly at work in the organisation, throwing all journalistic ethics out the window.
Ashraf is clueless as to who the women was, on whose complaint the channel claims to have aired the audio clip. "This is what I also want to know. If there is a woman like that, why has she not come forward with a complaint? I am sure many of my colleagues are also asking the same question. But the senior management has no answer for this," Ashraf adds.
On Sunday, when the clip was aired at 11 am, there were a few women activists at the floor of the channel. One among them was Sonia George, a well-known activist and representative of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Kerala. Sonia, though shocked to hear the clip, says that she and a few others were duped into giving a reaction to the clip.
"It was their launch day and I was there as one of the panellists, from 10 to 11 am, for what they told me was a show on women empowerment. But around 10.30, they suddenly said you can leave only after you react to a breaking news item. When I heard this audio clip, I felt like grabbing the mic and throwing it off. But, by that time we were on air and I couldn’t. The way the channel coaxed me and other panellists into this was so shameful and shocking. After the show, we made it a point to put it across to the CEO," George said.
Judicial probe an eye wash?
The Left government in the state, meanwhile, has ordered a judicial probe into the incident by a retired judge and has asked for a report in the next three months. But, legal experts are of the opinion that the need of the hour is not a judicial enquiry but a thorough police investigation into the matter.
Advocate CP Udayabhanu, who is a Special Public Prosecutor at the Kerala High Court, calls this probe a complete eyewash. "If the government wants to fix the culpability on certain persons regarding whether this is a trap or it actually happened, then the government has to do an enquiry by the police and not by a retired judicial officer. A retired judicial officer does not have any nail or tooth to ascertain or fix a liability on any particular person. He can only recommend to the government based on his reports," Udayabhanu said.
Legal experts are also saying that such a judicial enquiry, which takes an eternity to even kick-start, would only give a chance to the conspirators, if any, to destroy all evidence. Prominent journalists, writers and activists, who are aghast at the falling standards in Malayalam journalism have also called upon the chief minister with a mass petition to conduct a police investigation into the matter.
Journalists, who are both angry and shocked at Mangalam TV’s shelving of basic ethics in an effort to make its name in the market, say that the channel’s attempt will only bring a bad name for the profession itself.
"This is going to hurt your serious investigations in a big way. When you go for such slimy and sleazy elements, you are actually ignoring the more serious issues of corruption and venality. This is a self-defeatist project. It is neither benefiting that particular organisation or a journalist. It only defeats the profession," C Gouridasan Nair, bureau chief, The Hindu, said.
A day after the incident, the Director General of Police Lokanath Behera met the chief minister, after which the state cabinet ordered a judicial probe. This has given rise to speculation that the government has something to cover up, due to which it is shying from taking on the channel with a police investigation.
Violations galore by Mangalam and its CEO as cases fly thick and fast
Thirty six hours after the airing of the audio clip, the channel and its CEO have been slapped with one criminal case after another. It all started when the CEO of Mangalam TV, R Ajith Kumar, shared a picture of a young lady standing with the concerned minister in a WhatsApp group of prominent journalists and senior government officials based out of Thiruvananthapuram.
While Kumar had no answer to queries posted by senior journalists in the group as to who the girl was, few other staff members of the same channel were busy posting the same picture in other WhatsApp groups.
On Tuesday, a 20-year-old woman who hails from Parappanangadi in Malappuram in North Kerala filed a police complaint against the CEO and another staffer for circulating her picture over social media and bringing her disrepute.
While Kumar still stays silent on why the girl’s picture was used, we now know from the girl herself that it was clicked by some media person at a function close to her college, where the minister was inaugurating an expo. The girl happened to be a volunteer at the event.
"I came to know this when my brother showed me the picture. This was just a function and I happened to be one of the hostesses in that. The minister saw me and greeted me. What is wrong in that? It’s only a media person who took that picture. How can they use it for such a purpose? What journalism is this?" asks the young woman, who wanted to remain anonymous.
Close on heels of the woman’s complaint, Advocate Mujeeb Rehman, who is also the state president of the Nationalist Youth Congress (NYC), approached the cyber cell of the Kerala police to invoke the relevant sections of the Information Technology Act against the channel.
"Whatever they aired on Sunday, and whatever they continue to show on their website and through Facebook and YouTube, comes under the ambit of cyber pornography. So I have given a complaint to the police to book then under the IT Act, Indian Telegraph Act, the IPC and the Cable Television Networks Act," Rehman said.
Mystery around the audio clip continues
The minister has resigned. The government has declared a judicial probe. But the crucial question that still remains – where is the woman based on whose complaint the channel says they had aired the audio clip? While it is yet to be scientifically proven that the voice in the clip is that of the minister himself, the benefit of the doubt goes to the channel, since the minister has resigned.
But, right from the beginning, the voice of the woman was muted which clearly raises the doubt whether her voice was edited out in order to protect the identity of a ‘honey trapping’ staffer, as alleged by Ashraf, who has recently quit the channel.
The channel says otherwise: "We were approached by someone with this tape. We had to keep her identity in anonymity, which is the normal practice in such cases. So we did that. What is wrong in that?" asks Kumar.
But the pertinent question remains: Why has the woman not filed a police complaint to date? Also, why has the channel itself not approached the police with the tapes as evidence?
Legal experts say that if the channel’s version was right, it would mean that the minister has committed a grievous crime, by making sexual advances on a woman who came to him for help and hence the channel itself is liable to approach the police with evidence of the same.
But one journalist, who happened to hear the unedited version of the tape, told Firstpost that the minister was only "reacting to the sexual overtures made from across the other side of the telephone line and was certainly behaving in the heat of the moment."
More in store?
Meanwhile, the government’s order of a judicial probe has not deterred the channel from running promos that more such exposés, that would rock Kerala, are on its way. For the Vijayan government that has had to put up with the resignations of two of its ministers in just over a year, since coming to power, one more scandal could be too much to bear.
Perhaps that is the reason why a fuming Vijayan is holding himself back from going all out against Mangalam TV. Some hectic negotiations and backroom deals are also alleged to be the order of the day.
Updated Date: Mar 30, 2017 17:08 PM