A DGP, two godmen and a TV channel

BY Madabhushi Sridhar| IN Media Freedom | 15/09/2013
The police became the prime actors all because a top police officer with a controversial background visited a godman, and was covered by TV channels.
MADABHUSHI SRIDHAR looks at the confrontation between the media and the police in Hyderabad.

It is a unique situation indeed. One DGP and two godmen- Ramavadhutha Swamy of Ongole and Habib Mustafa Idrus Baba of Hyderabad old city! 

V. Dinesh Reddy, the DGP of Andhra Pradesh, is under apex court scrutiny for allegations of disproportionate assets. His extension is also under challenge before the service tribunal. His visits to the godmen were filmed and telecast by a section of media. The latest devotional controversy involves two babas, and questions raised were: whether DGP prostrated at the feet of the godmen, and did he carry the 'file' for divine blessings? Generally the visit of an officer to a godman should have been left unreported as an event of no news value. But, the media tried to add spice with backdrop of legal controversies, which led to criminal cases resulting in protests and dharnas.

It was the DGP's policemen and his favourite godman's disciples versus the Zee 24 Gantalu, Telugu TV News Channel in Andhra Pradesh on September 13 at the busy Khairatabad road. Reddy is facing challenges on two counts, his personal assets and service issues including extension of term. The Supreme Court was tough in recently admonishing the Chief Secretary of the state for not probing the disproportionate assets allegation against the DGP, in spite of submission of indisputable proof. 

DGP V Dinesh Reddy's meeting with godman Habib Mustafa Idrus Baba at Fateh Darwaza in old city of Hyderabad is not disputed. But the allegation against the media was 'twisting facts' and 'morphing visuals'. The special story telecast by Telugu TV news channel Zee 24 Gantalu on Reddy's visit to a godman in the Old City on September 12 contained some morphed visuals, charged DIG (Administration) L. Subba Rao, who lodged complaint in Hyderabad Central Crime Station. A criminal case was registered against Zee 24 Gantalu under Section 469 (forgery for purpose of harming reputation) of the Indian Penal Code and under the section 66A of Information Technology Act (presumably because every  TV channel has a web version which automatically attracts the cyber law).

The DCP of Central Crime StationLKV Rangarao held a press conference and explained: "One component of the complaint was that the telecast had morphed footage of the DGP touching feet of Ramavadhutha Swamy of Ongole. The complainant stated that the DGP had earlier visited the Swamy but never touched his feet."  Rao alleged that the channel had wrongly shown the DGP carrying a file containing papers of the recent Supreme Court ruling ordering a CBI inquiry into his assets during the visit to the godman in the Old City. 

The top officer of CCS who has to probe into the 'charge' contended that the DGP did not carry any such file containing court papers.  The DCP said the DGP and the DIG "were being examined as witnesses in the case" and a special team of the CCS went to the channel office to ascertain facts. The entire video footage shown by the channel in the story would be sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) to ascertain if any part of it has been morphed as alleged.  If it is found to have been morphed, the criminal case would further proceed.  

Followers of the godman squatted in front of the channel office holding placards and raised slogans denouncing the 'partisan' attitude of the media charging it had aired news by "twisting the facts" and this has hurt the sentiments of followers.  It was alleged that police teams entered the premises of Zee Channel's office and tried to arrest some persons. However, the media reported after some time that senior police officers intervened and the management issued an apology. Before that, a police team came to collect the evidence related to the case. 

A quick dharna in protest against the 'high-handed' behaviour of the devotees and the police was organised by the journalists from different TV news channels and newspapers, that invited intervention by the police who dispersed the demonstrating journalists. A police picket was also posted at the media office. Later, it was communicated that the city police officials had come to the TV channel office to collect evidence pertaining to the case registered for telecasting the DGP's visit story. The channel was also accused of depicting the godman as a person having a criminal record. Another complaint was lodged with the Hussaini Alam police station, which accused the channel of slandering the spiritual leader by leveling false allegations against him. 

Journalists unions condemned the attack under the guise of 'search' operation. Indian Union of Journalists, Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, Hyderabad Union of Journalists protested the attack on the media office and demanded immediate action against the excessive action of police threatening the free speech. 

You could argue that under normal circumstances visiting a godman is part of personal freedom of any officer. The channel chose to sensationalise it. But just reporting the visit is neither defamatory nor an invasion of privacy. It could be embarassing perhaps! Yet the police brought their might to bear on those who embarrassed their officer, even invoking the controversial provision Section 66A of Information Technology Act, 2000.

Whose interests are being protected here?

Madabhushi Sridhar, Professor & Coordinator Center for Media Law & Public Policy, NALSAR Hyderabad.
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