The Press and the Whistleblower

Can a journalist blindly trust any whistleblower? Journalists are expected never to accept what they are told without scrutinizing the information

Probably never before in the history of independent Mauritius has the press been found in the situation which we are witnessing today. It all started when a so-called whistleblower cum self-confessed swindler unfolded a version of facts to the effect that the former Attorney General was allegedly involved in a money laundering scheme cunningly concocted via an online betting scheme. Allegedly the whistleblower feared for his life and sought refuge in the precincts of the La Sentinelle media group. There he blurted out what journalists of that group saw as a unique scoop. The ball started rolling with the version of the whistleblower being reduced to writing in the form of a draft affidavit. This was subsequently sworn by the maker of the facts before a solicitor who read all the facts line by line to him.

A few days later the maker, who had also produced documentary evidence allegedly emanating from the former Attorney General, retracted his version of facts and was bold enough to state via another media group that he had been manipulated by the La Sentinelle group journalists. The police were quick to pounce on that new version and went in a hot pursuit of the journalists. So much so that in the early hours of one morning, the police landed at the residence of the journalists, and kept watch on the premises of the La Sentinelle premises. The version of the self-confessed swindler compounded by his confession to swearing a false affidavit became gospel truth – that the journalists had allegedly conspired to bring down the former Attorney General and that he had been used to complete the process of the political demise of Ravi Yerrigadoo.

These events call for some deep thinking on a few matters. How independently have the police acted in this matter? How far can journalists go in the search for the real story behind every event? Lessons can be drawn from the proper practice of investigative journalism, which is a form of journalism in which reporters deeply investigate a single topic of interest, such as serious crimes, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. It tries to discover information of public interest that someone is trying to hide. Can a journalist blindly trust any whistleblower? The answer is certainly no. Journalists are expected never to accept what they are told without scrutinizing the information, which they must not blindly accept. One can understand when it comes to matters related to politics, because of the duplicity of politicians – whether they are in the opposition or in power –, that there is a great temptation to jump headlong on to a piece of news and publish it.

The Press Council of India in a publication in 2010 on ‘Norms of Journalistic Conduct’ advised that the investigative journalist should resist the temptation of quickies or quick gains conjured up from half-baked incomplete, doubtful facts, not fully checked up and verified from authentic sources by the reporter himself. The investigative reporter should, as a rule, base his story on facts investigated, detected and verified by himself and not on hearsay or on derivative evidence collected by a third party.

Did the La Sentinelle group journalists follow the above precepts? Or did they succumb to the temptation of quickies? This said, one important fact in this whole saga is that the whistleblower cum self-confessed swindler went to the journalists. This is a factor that should weigh heavily in the evaluation of the conduct of the journalists before flamboyant words like “manipulation” or “conspiracy” are used against them. Speaking of manipulation, one may ask whether the media group that welcomed the swindler where he spoke of manipulation may not find itself caught in the web of manipulation or conspiracy. Accusations may be a double-edged sword.

Why did the police have to resort to the kind of tactics they used against the La Sentinelle journalists? The time when the government of the day was riding high on the crest of national popularity is long gone. The euphoria surrounding the arrest of the former Prime Minister, the attempted arrest of the Director of Public Prosecutions in the early hours of a morning; the arrest of individuals on mere allegations levelled by ministers should have made the police more cautious and the Commissioner of Police more mindful of their independence from political power. Alas it does not appear that the police have learnt their lesson. What does the Human Rights Commission think about all this? What is the charge against the journalists? Why should the word of a self-confessed swindler carry more weight with the police than the word of the journalists?

Some lingering questions remain. Why has the swindler not been arrested for having sworn a false affidavit? Why the difference in treatment between those close to political power and others? And, what would be the fate of the former Attorney General inasmuch as he has admitted to have given to a self-confessed swindler a clean bill of health when it is the prerogative of the Director of Public Prosecutions to grant a certificate of morality to individuals? We should remember that one of the first decisions that the former Attorney General did on assuming office was to bring the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions under his administration in spite of recommendations made by eminent British jurists that this should not be so. Was there more to that decision than what we had been told?

All these unanswered interrogations leave doubts in the public’s mind about the independence of institutions and the propriety of the investigative methods used. More clarity will have to be provided about the motivations behind these events that are sullying the image of the country.

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