What justification can the media possibly have to splash details of a suicide or an accident victim’s broken friendships? What purpose can be served in providing verbatim accounts, spread over an entire page, of the FIR lodged by a complainant of rape? Why would the media plaster selectively pixellated photographs of party-goers raided by the police in an alleged drug-bust which ultimately turned out to be a damp squib?
Don’t any of these victims or survivors have any right to privacy? How rigorously do the media review their standard justifications – that of public interest – when they do report issues that are also violative of privacy?
Additionally, the media’s shocking bias against disadvantaged communities is obvious as they simply do not bother to obtain the consent of the people whose details they share with the world. If you are poor, female, dalit, or belong to a minority community, do you have the chance to say: leave me alone?
Today, the realm of the “private” is up for sale. Data harvesting of private information is rampant and with the rapid changes in technology, it is beyond the ken of a layperson to even know of the hidden cookies stored in electronic devices much less keep track of the information they store.
While commercial efforts to collect as much personal data as possible are on the rise, the increasing powers of the state to intrude into the individual’s personal domain, obtain information and data, and to allow for much more surveillance than before on grounds of national security are of huge concern.
The Right to Privacy Bill, which is slated to be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament, deals extensively with data protection and less with privacy in relation to the media. It has also laid down penal provisions on interception of communication, recording of conversations and telephone tapping, surveillance, etc, ranging from three to five years with fines.
The rules for the amended Information Technology Act, 2000 under Section 43A that deal with reasonable security practices and sensitive personal data or information provide detailed guidelines on the access to such data.
However, government agencies mandated under the law can obtain sensitive personal information without the prior consent of the provider of the information for verification of identity, prevention, detection, investigation of cyber incidents, prosecution, or punishment of offences.
The Bill does not address privacy in the context of freedom of expression, though this has come up often enough in the recent past. The petition by Ratan Tata in the Supreme Court on the Radia tapes disclosure maintained that even if the surveillance and phone taps were permissible for reasons of national security, the publication of the tapes were a violation of his fundamental right to privacy (though of course, the right to privacy does not figure as a specific fundamental right in the Constitution, being part of the right to life).
If, in this instance, public interest was clearly served by the disclosure of some, not all, of the tapes (the others dealt with what editors decided were clearly in the realm of the personal) what happens to a whole lot of day-to-day violations of privacy by the media?
It appears that the media’s standard defence – public interest as well as the other media mantra – that we give the public what it wants – is fuelling the media’s marketing of the personal. In the race for eyeballs and TRPs, the media’s coverage of crime, disaster, accidents, and tragedies is of course only too well documented. The media’s ghoulish fascination for the shocking and macabre serial killings or the now formulaic reportage of hit-and-run victims may seem an inevitable part of its agenda to find news that sells.
However, inherent in this is the media’s repeated violation of the right to privacy and a course correction needs to be urgently undertaken.
Consider a few examples:
In the Mumbai Mirror of June 11, 2012, the front-page story states: “Lovelorn 20-year-old jumps off 19th floor”. The report is illustrated with photographs of the youth and a friend he was in a relationship with but which ended around seven months ago. The report is replete with details of the youth’s state of mind and his depression and even helpfully slips in the irrelevant information that the party’s host was the daughter of a well-known retail chain of sweetshops.
None of the photographs of the youth and his friend, or of him in school or his family at the crematorium bear any credits or bylines. Now, the reader is not privy to how these photographs came into the possession of the newspaper. Were they given to the newspaper? Were they taken from Facebook pages of the youth? Did the police give them to the newspaper? Was it ethical for the newspaper to publish the identity of the friend the young man had a relationship with, as well as publish her photograph?
On May 20, 2012, the Mumbai police raided a “rave” party attended by over 90 people, including two IPL cricket players and a few television and film actors. The raid was covered by the media extensively, and as is their wont, the media were tipped off and were present almost from the start of the raid. For days after, the media covered details of the tests the party-goers had to submit to, the allegations of possession of drugs and drug abuse. Photographs in the illustrated reports were, with little exception, on the women who attended, even as they hid their faces with their handbags.
Subsequent reports in a few newspapers, at least nine days after the raid, began “questioning” the police raid: “Did cops flout own rule during Juhu raid?”, asked a report from The Times of India, stating that the police guidelines issued in 2004 barred media coverage of police raids. The report asked: "Was the media permitted by Roy to shoot images of the guests at the party while they were being herded by the police into vans, especially when a case was yet to be registered?" is a question many lawyers are asking.
The guidelines for the media, the report informed, came from a case filed by a businessman arrested in an alleged cheating case in 2003. Television cameras filmed the arrest and the businessman’s lawyer argued that this had violated his privacy, leading to the guidelines from the Bombay High Court. The businessman was acquitted of all his charges in 2009, but this did not get similar coverage from the media.
Undoubtedly, the media have a duty to report police action – be it arrests, detention, custody on suspicion, raids, police encounters, and the like. They actually monitor police action too, even as they report on any alleged wrongdoing. But when does this get to be a violation of the privacy of those accused?
Good journalism means that the media reports – whether in the form of the printed text, or the spoken words broadcast over television channels, or the scrolling text that accompanies television visuals–the charge as an accusation, not as a fact, till it is proved and a sentence passed. But how often is any care taken in doing so?
The quality of the coverage by the media is also a crucial factor in establishing the justification of public interest in any issue. The alleged rape case of the student of TISS, Mumbai, in 2009 is an illustration of how sections of the media went out on a limb to sensationalise the complaint. In the Mumbai Mirror, dated April 17, 2009, the entire FIR filed by the complainant was reproduced verbatim and the howls of protests that followed only drew more justification and defence from the newspaper for its act.
For the media, which operate clearly on the “crime, cricket, celebrity” formula, celebrity-tracking and the pursuit of celebrity babies are becoming another profession in itself. Hindi film actor Aishwarya Rai was forced to plead for privacy from prying cameras when she went into hospital to deliver her baby and is still hounded by cameras when she does step out.
The notion that public figures, celebrities included, have entirely given up their right to a “private” persona in any public space is debatable. Yes, the paparazzi’s celebrity-tracking is a tough call. After all, you never know when the celeb will kick up a ruckus in a cricket match, get into a fight in a pub, or drunkenly mow down hapless people on a footpath! Naturally, citing privacy rights are not going to wash in these circumstances. But these are exceptions. Surely public figures can dine out, go on holiday, drop their kids off to school, or do myriad things normal folk do?
In the absence of any clear regulation, media practice must improve. The media need to very rigorously review privacy intrusions in the name of public interest on a case-by-case basis and put into place far stronger mechanisms in the newsroom that can stand the test of scrutiny.
(Some part of this article stems from a roundtable on privacy and freedom of expression hosted by the Centre for Internet and Society in Goa on June 2. My thanks to all the participants for being such a stimulating sounding board.)