After a video depicting his sexual tryst with a female lawyer went viral on social media sites, Rajya Sabha MP and prominent attorney Abhishek Manu Singhvi resigned as Congress party spokesman and from a parliamentary law committee he headed.
The Indian media have been in a tizzy ever since on the conflict between free speech and the right to privacy inherent in exposing sexual conduct involving two consenting adults. In his resignation letter, Singhvi, who insists the video is fabricated, coyly argues: “Either the CD is morphed or it is not. In either event it raises no public interest issue, yet evokes salacious private and prurient interest and contumacious internet violation of a flagrant kind. As a political or a professional class, instead of gleefully watching, promoting or participating in a person’s natural and understandable discomfiture, we must respect privacy issues.”
His privacy defense is disingenuous. By Singhvi’s own account, his former driver was attempting to blackmail him with doctored and morphed videos. The driver Mukesh Kumar Lal told a court in written and oral submissions that he had created four digitally manipulated CDs to reek revenge on the Singhvi family, ostensibly because their “dog had bitten my wife and I felt that because of that my child was born physically challenged” and because he rued his poor salary. Nevertheless, Singhvi agreed to drop all civil claims and criminal charges and “settled amicably” with his self-confessed, two-timing driver and secured a court injunction barring the broadcast of the video by three media houses in possession of it.
Implausible as it might seem that a technically unsophisticated driver could have either the computer skills or the resources to create ingeniously doctored CDs or that Singhvi could amicably settle such a brazen blackmail attempt above board, even allowing for such a possibility, the extortion attempts directed at — and its secret resolution by — a prominent ruling party politician raise compelling civic concerns that scream for public scrutiny.
Singhvi’s critics assert that he is heard promising help with a judicial appointment to the woman allegedly performing sexual favors on him on the video. Singhvi has denounced such charges of “illegality, corrupt practice, or wrongdoing” as “canards… spread simply to give the issue a public interest flavor.” But the best way to ascertain their veracity is a public airing of the video that enables viewers to judge the truth of the allegations for themselves.
But the notoriously inept, reckless and wimpish Indian media elected to censor the video, huffing and puffing about press freedoms, prurient interests and privacy rights instead to obscure their own failures at being scooped by activists and the social media. As a result, few Indians have actually seen the video, even though nearly a million people have viewed it online on YouTube, Twitvid and other social media sites. The Indian mainstream media’s reluctance to screen the video is befuddling, because the injunction issued by the Delhi High Court applied only to “the defendants, their agents and all others acting for and/or on their behalf.” It was not a blanket gag order directed at all media. Indeed, as we report in this issue, Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a relatively obscure political activist with a history of intimidating and even assaulting people with whose views he disagrees, openly posted the video online and dared Singhvi to file a contempt motion against him.
The conduct of Aaj Tak, Headlines Today and India Today, among the country’s preeminent media companies, who were in possession of the CDs, is especially troubling. The India Today Group, which controls these three media houses, raised no public objection to the blatant censorship attempt, seemingly advanced no defense on behalf of the public interest, and instead, by all accounts, consented meekly to the court order and surrendered the CDs. According to Singhvi, “A reputed media house which was co-defendant in the suit also recorded a consent statement based on the statement of the author of the CD i.e. the driver.” The India Today Group has not disputed Singhvi’s characterization and has remained deafeningly silent on its role in the raging controversy.
According to Singhvi’s legal pleadings, several political leaders contacted him on March 23 and 24 about the CDs being in the possession of journalists. If true, why did Headlines Today and Aaj Tak not broadcast them or disclose that they possessed them during the three weeks before Singhvi went to court to have them censored?
If they judged the materials to violate privacy or not be newsworthy, surely the fact that someone was attempting to blackmail a senior Congress Party leader was a legitimate news story. At least when Singhvi went to court to suppress the videos, it became newsworthy. By just about any journalistic standard, when a court issued an injunction against the broadcast of the video, it crossed the newsworthy threshold and the court ruling after all was a public document. Yet, it was only three days after the censorship order was issued that it was reported in the media — that too not by the media house involved in and first aware of it, but by another media organization.
Singhvi’s legal machinations at censorship (and India Today’s failure to resist) might well have remained hidden from public view. In a seemingly calculated attempt at concealing the sensational character of the case from public scrutiny, the application for injunction listed not Singhvi, but his law partner Abhimanyu Bhandari as the lead plaintiff, so that Singhvi’s name does not crop up on the Delhi High Court’s website or case list. Likewise, the media houses are not listed as defendants on the court’s website or censorship order. Singhvi is only identified as “plaintiff No. 2” and the defendants — aside from the driver who is named as the lead defendant — are simply listed as “No. 1 to 4” in the court order: “Irreparable injury is likely to be caused to the reputation and goodwill of the plaintiff No. 2 in case the defendants are not restrained from disseminating the information allegedly in their possession in the form of a CD…. Till the next date, the defendants, their agents and all others acting for and/or on their behalf are restrained from publishing, broadcasting, disseminating or distributing in any form or manner the contents of any alleged CD or any other material as described in the plaint in relation to the plaintiff No. 2.”
In the United States, media organizations, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have over the years gone to considerable lengths at grave legal risk and enormous financial costs to resist censorship by the government acting under the cover of national security. Prior restraints to protect individual reputations, when alternative protections exist for aggrieved parties under libel law, ought to be unthinkable in any free society, such as India.
That a deep pocketed media house like the India Today Group folded its tent without resistance in the face of Singhvi’s legal threats, while an obscure activist with a checkered free speech history dared to resist, is a permanent blot on a storied media house, for which it owes its readers and the public an apology and an explanation.