Let me begin at the very beginning by pointing out that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which has filed an FIR against a journalist who exposed a breach in its Aadhaar database denied that it was trying to gag the media or whistleblowers. After facing a widespread criticism for filing a criminal complaint naming a journalist – Rachna Khaira of ‘The Tribune’ among others, the UIDAI said in a press release statement that, “It was duty bound to place all facts before the police and criminal proceedings have been initiated for the act of unauthorized access as it takes criminal violations seriously.” It triggered a political firestorm with the government saying it was committed to press freedom and the Opposition accusing it of ‘fascism’.
To put things in perspective, the FIR was filed two days ago by a Deputy Director of UIDAI which is the parent body of the Aadhaar project against The Tribune’s Rachna Khaira for her report, which claimed that unknown agents had provided her access to Aadhaar’s database for just Rs 500. Should she be punished for exposing how anyone can exploit the loophole to gain access to Aadhaar’s database? Certainly not.
Rather she should be commended and awarded for her exemplary work and courage to expose the wrongdoing and loopholes prevalent in the Aadhaar! American whistleblower Edward Snowden said the Indian journalist whose report on alleged Aadhaar data breach led to lodging of an FIR merits an award and not a government probe for the work. He also said the Indian government should reform its policy to safeguard privacy of its citizens. Absolutely right!
Needless to say, Snowden tweeted on Twitter that, “The journalists exposing the #Aadhaar breach deserve an award, not an investigation. If the government were truly concerned for justice, they would be reforming the policies that destroyed the privacy of a billion Indians. Want to arrest those responsible? They are called @UIDAI.” He also remarked in his tweet that, “It is the natural tendency of government to desire perfect records of private lives.”
It must also be revealed here that according to the police, on January 4, 2018, a complaint was received from Deputy Director UIDAI BM Patnaik stating that an input had been received through The Tribune newspaper, dated January 3, 2018, mentioning that they had purchased a service being offered for Rs 500 by anonymous sellers over ‘Whatsapp’. The service provided unrestricted access to details for any of more than one billion Aadhaar numbers including name, address, postal code, photo, phone number and email. What wrong has been done by Rachna in exposing this?
Yet what did she get in return? The Press release by the Editors Guild of India noted as the Delhi Police Crime Branch confirmed filing of the FIR that the journalist was booked under the IPC Sections 419 (punishment for cheating under personation), 468 (forgery), 471 (using a forged document), Sections of the Information Technology Act and the Aadhaar Act. How fair is it to book a brave journalist under so many Sections? Most reprehensible!
It is heartening to note that even the Editors Guild of India stated most explicitly that, “Instead of a direct attack on the freedom of press UIDAI should have ordered a thorough internal investigation into the alleged breach and made its findings public”. Very rightly said! But most unfortunately what UIDAI has done is just the reverse which can rightly be termed as “Shoot the messenger”! How can this be ever justified by anyone? No way!
It is also heartening to note that it is not just the Editors Guild of India and opposition parties who have condemned the action but even the local press clubs have not lagged behind in condemning this dastardly action of lodging an FIR against the brave journalist – Rachna Khaira. Expressing serious concern over the FIR, the Editors Guild of India said that, “It is clearly meant to browbeat a journalist whose investigation on the matter was of great public interest. It is unfair, unjustified and a direct attack on the freedom of the press.” Very rightly said!
It is noteworthy that AICC spokesman Manish Tewari alleged that there have been systematic assaults on scribes and an atmosphere of fear and violence has been created against them. He asked the people to introspect whether they want a liberal, democratic and fascist country. Tewari alleged that media organizations have been systematically hounded and targeted and demanded that the FIR against “The Tribune” and the journalist be withdrawn if the government believes in the freedom of press.
He said that the newspaper which warns the government that the privacy and the private data of thousands of citizens are at risk is rewarded with an FIR. He very rightly said that, “If this is not fascism, if this is not trying to muzzle dissent, if this is not gross abuse of state authority, then I am afraid, we possibly do not have a definition for it….” Nothing on earth can justify an FIR against the brave journalist Rachna Khaira who dared to take the system head on and expose the loopholes by exploiting which any person can obtain any information from UIDAI database!
To be sure, the Editors Guild also rightly pointed out that, “Instead of penalising the reporter, UIDAI should have ordered a thorough internal investigation into the alleged breach and made its findings public.” Raj Chengappa who is President of Editors Guild of India rightly asserted that, “The Guild demands that the concerned Union Ministry intervene and have the cases against the reporter withdrawn, apart from conducting an impartial investigation into the matter.”
What is most amazing is that inspite of FIR being lodged against her, Rachna appeared calm and responded calmly by saying that, “I think I have earned this FIR. I am happy that at least the UIDAI has taken some action on my report and I really hope that along with the FIR, the Government of India will see what all breaches were there and take appropriate action.” On being asked whether she stood by her report, she responded confidently that, “Yes, of course, I stand by every word in it.” She refrained from commenting on the issue as she felt that it is not the right time.
On being asked whether she had received any organizational support, Rachna said that, “I am very happy that not only the Chandigarh media, the Delhi media and even the international media have assured me of support. I am also happy that the report has been applauded by the big names in the media. The Tribune is providing all the legal assistance to me.” The Tribune’s Editor-in-Chief Harish Khare while reiterating his full solidarity with Rachna lamented that, “We regret very much that the authorities have misconceived an honest journalistic enterprise and have proceeded to institute criminal proceedings against the whistle blower.” The Chandigarh Press Club (CPC) too while condemning the FIR lodged against Rachna lamented that, “Instead of taking action against people, who were involved in the data breach, the government agency preferred to lodge a case against the reporter, who exposed the loopholes in the system.” CPC Secretary General Barinder Singh Rawat also hit out saying that, “In an act of ‘shoot the messenger’, the UIDAI had filed a case against the reporter of The Tribune for an article on how anonymous users accessed Aadhaar details and sold it for a fee.”
All said and done, Rachna Khaira merits award as Edward Snowden advocated and not probe! It is the job of the journalists to take the risk like Rachna to find out such fact and report them so that the authorities can act on them well in time. All journalists not just young but even seniors should look forward to her as a shining beacon of hope always ready to face the grave challenges which comes in her journey while pursuing her journalism career and should always try hard to emulate what she has done! Why journalists alone? We all must always get inspired by what Rachna Khaira has done and should try our level best to always act like her – to always be solely concentrated in bringing out nothing but the real truth even if it exposes the high and the mighty which includes the Government in the Centre! Hats off to Rachna Khaira! We are all proud of you and for what you have done! Superb!
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.