Sunday, 5 December 2010

Not a wicked leak

The Outlook magazine has decided to put the mp3 audio files of phone conversations of Niira Radia on its website. For more than a week, any one has been free to download these files and listen to hundreds of conversations between Niira Radia and prominent journalists, politicians and top bureaucrats.

The conversations reveal how a British--Kenyan corporate lobbyist surviving on an Person of Indian Origin tag was trying to influence the nation's Union Cabinet formation. They reveal the amazing reach and power of this new class of "public relations" managers. They also reveal a close relationship between journalists and the subjects they cover. Such proximity is bound to affect objective news coverage. Are the tapes only an aberration, or is this the tip of an iceberg? So far nobody has completely denied the authenticity of the tapes.

Till the time of writing this, there is no court injunction to shut down the website. Simultaneously, there is a global community of volunteers who are furiously helping transcribe all those taped audio files. These conversations were from wire taps conducted by the Income Tax authorities in 2008 and 2009. Only one telephone was tapped, that of Niira Radia. Niira was being investigated for tax evasions and violations of foreign exchange laws.

The remarkable thing is that discussion about the recent Mediagate is that it came into Indian mainstream media (television, magazines and radio) only after a gap of more than ten days since the day these tapes became public. In the days of cutthroat competition for "breaking news", it is odd that this news did not break for ten days. Conspiracy? There was a deafening silence as if there was a tacit consensus that pirated unauthenticated stuff should not be published. But on the Internet, on Facebook and on Twitter, it was a raging topic, even becoming one of the top ten most discussed "trending topics". News about the Mediagate started appearing even in international dailies and journals like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

Even then the news did not break here. What seems to have finally precipated matters is the recent whistleblower website WikiLeaks. By a curious coincidence the global media was happily reporting the latest installment of WikiLeaks, while our media was silent on Radia Leaks. The silence became unsustainable. The WikiLeaks documents are much more incendiary stuff, even though "stolen". They are extremely embarrassing to the authorities, the US government. They were sought to be suppressed on grounds that they would lead to endangering lives. Some people in the US are trying to have their government declare WikiLeaks as a foreign terrorist organization. One particular person, a University professor no less, has asked that the founder Julian Assange be assasinated, like the leaders of Al-Qaeda!

So with such fierce opposition and government threats, if WikiLeaks could still be published, why not the Niira Radia tapes, which were equally incendiary? As a democracy, we already are committed to a citizen's right to information. Secrecy can never be a weapon to be used against the people. The US is also trying to promote open governments and transparency around the globe. So, it cannot be seen suppressing its own transcripts, even if they are obtained illegally. And if the US does prosecute WikiLekas, it would be by using its own laws, not by brute force or "goonda raj".

The Niira Radia tapes raise many issues and right to privacy is one of them. But just as we often weight tradeoffs between collective welfare and individual rights (as in land acquisition for a highway or metro), so also an individual's right to privacy must be weighed against the public interest. The revelation of the Niira Radia tapes throws immense light on behind the scenes workings of our government, news gatherers, opinion makers, power brokers and lobbyists. This sunshine on the tapes and information openly released into the Ganges of public opinion can only strengthen our democracy, not weaken it.

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