A screenshot from the controversial segment by Times Now. YouTube/Times Now
A screenshot from the controversial segment by Times Now. YouTube/Times Now

On Monday, Times Now, one of India’s biggest news channels, aired a debate on a sensational alleged sexual-assault case which had taken the country by storm when it was first reported.

The trial is being heard in a court in the coastal state of Goa. In the course of the telecast, the channel repeatedly – three times – aired footage captured by closed-circuit TV when the alleged incident happened and which has been presented as evidence before the court.

Not only did the channel air the footage, but it also discussed it in detail a number of times, with voiceovers and commentary, aimed at creating doubt in the minds of viewers by raising questions about the rape survivor’s version and create a constituency that espouses the innocence of the accused.

The accused in this case is Tarun Tejpal, a high-profile journalist and former editor of the weekly magazine Tehelka. One female staffer (whose name cannot be disclosed as it is illegal in India to reveal the name of a rape complainant/survivor until a court arrives at a decision) accused Tejpal of sexually assaulting her on two occasions – November 7 and 8, 2013 – in a hotel elevator in Goa during a conference organized by the magazine at which they worked.

This led to widespread condemnation and the editor, Tejpal, was arrested and remanded to police custody. He was given bail subsequently. The trial finally started in March this year.

What Times Now broadcast was supposed to be closed evidence in a court of law.

“According to Section 327 (2) and (3) of India’s Code of Criminal Procedure, trials in cases of rape and sexual assault are to be conducted in camera,” said senior advocate Rebecca John – that is, only the parties and their lawyers are allowed to be present.

“Moreover, it will be illegal for anyone to print or publish any matter in relation to such proceedings without the prior permission of the court. This had not been done,” said John, who is representing the survivor in the present case and thus makes Times Now liable to penal judicial action.

In the shrill slanging match between various lawyers and social activists that followed on the channel immediately after the broadcast of the CCTV footage, which Times Now tried to pass off as a ”debate,” there were multiple occasions when some of the panelists questioned the survivor’s testimony and went so far as to call her a liar.

One panelist, a lawyer named Ravi Sharma from Delhi said, “The CCTV (footage) you have shown proves the innocence of Tarun Tejpal beyond any reasonable doubt… Everything that the girl has said, which is not captured in the CCTV, has been demolished.”

When the segment’s host asked him if he was suggesting he wants “a sexual assault to be captured on CCTV,” Sharma replied, “That’s the best evidence.”

“The narrative which is pre and post the incident of the alleged rape is all false. The girl has lied. She has led Tarun on the second occasion. She came back after 6 minute,” Sharma said.

Incidentally, the CCTV footage only shows the survivor’s and Tejpal’s actions before they entered the elevator and exited it, and not what happened while they were inside.

When asked if the Times Now telecast had violated any established judicial precedent, Sanjay Hegde, a senior advocate in India’s Supreme Court, said what the channel had done was “simply unprecedented.” There have been instances before when media have disclosed the identity of the survivor in a sexual assault case, but “it is the first time that a channel has broadcast closed evidence in an ongoing trial.”

“Moreover, the media trial to which the channel has subjected the victim  is a fit case to be brought to the attention of the court, and it calls for strict action,” he said.

Pamela Philipose, senior journalist and the readers’ editor of news website The Wire, questioned the very purpose of such actions that are sought to be passed off as “journalism.” She criticized the channel for indulging in the crassest of actions and throwing the survivor’s privacy to the wind by making her the object of slander and speculation.

Sevanti Ninan, a veteran journalist who has been a passionate advocate for media accountability for close to three decades, told Asia Times that the Times Now broadcast was not only in extremely poor taste, but was also illegal. In particular, she termed as “highly unethical” the channel’s act of providing a make-up voiceover that sounds as if the survivor is speaking of her ordeal inside the elevator, without disclosing that it is not her voice.

When confronted by Rebecca John’s question as to why none of the panelists, not even those who were on the side of the survivor, questioned why the channel aired the CCTV footage, Ashish Dixit, one of the lawyers on the panel who questioned her version, said that at the time of being invited on the show, he was not told what footage the channel would be airing.

At the same time, he maintained that the mere fact that the footage was aired did not mean that the channel had committed any illegality so long as it had not disclosed the survivor’s identity.

When contacted for her comment as to the lawfulness of the channel’s actions, Navika Kumar, editor of the channel and the anchor for Monday’s program, said she would offer no comment other than “we believed we had a story to do and so we did it.”

In the past few days, the mainstream Indian media have come in for a lot of criticism because of the Cobra Post exposé.

This copy has been updated to show accurately what one of the panelists, Ravi Sharma, said. It also corrects that he practices in Delhi and not Lucknow as reported.