Official Notice, Or A Warning To Journalists?
G. Mahantesh’s The File first broke the story about the recruitment scam in July 2020
G. Mahantesh, the founder and editor of Bengaluru-based online news portal The File was recently issued a notice by the Bengaluru Police, asking him to reveal the source of a story. Mahantesh, had published a story related to the school alleged teachers recruitment scam in Bengaluru.
The portal had reported that there were attempts being made to reinstate one of the tainted officials. Mahantesh also included an image of an official communication. Although the police and the education department have not denied that the communication actually happened, or said that any of the information published is true, they are demanding that the source be revealed. According to the education department, it was 'confidential' information that was leaked.
It was in July that Mahantesh first broke the story about the recruitment scam in which he revealed that several illegal and fraudulent appointments were made during the years 2012-13 and 2014-15 and that several education department officials were allegedly involved in the scam.
After the story was published, the government initiated a probe and raids were conducted in more than 51 places. Almost 60 people were arrested in connection with the case, a majority of whom were teachers and the rest were education department employees.
In September, the CID arrested the Managing Director of the Karnataka Textbook Society M.P. Madegowda and a few others from the department who were allegedly involved in issuing fraudulent appointment orders. Two days after the arrest, Madegowda was released on bail.
The File, in November, then published a follow-up story after receiving documents of a proposal sent to the education department seeking the reinstatement of Madegowda.
Speaking to The Citizen, Mahantesh said, "A proposal was sent to reinstate Gowda to his previous post. This was an internal proposal and I received it from a source. So I published an exclusive story on November 10 saying that there is an attempt to reinstate Made. Following that, a complaint was filed by the CPI office saying confidential information was leaked. An FIR was registered and in January, I received a notice from the Bengaluru police demanding that I reveal the source."
He added, "I replied saying that I will not reveal the source. The Indian Constitution gives me the freedom of speech. I have not written anything wrong. I also wrote that if I have violated the Officials Secret Act by any chance, then send me a notice again and I will consider the demand. But as far as I know, this doesn't come under the Official Secret Act."
The File is an online investigative news platform, and according to Mahantesh, all information published on the site is done only if official documents like FIR, chargesheet are available. "We don't try to interpret anything. We just explain what is in the documents," he said.
Explaining the reason for the complaint, an official from the CPI office told The Citizen, "A note sheet was leaked to a reporter from The File. Since these are all confidential e-office files, we are worried as to how this was leaked. It is the National Informatics Centre that manages the e-office portal and there cannot be any chance of leakage unless the officer in charge reveals the username and password. We were worried that there was some manipulation at the e-office level so we lodged a complaint. We have only mentioned that our notesheet has been leaked and requested the police to find out who has done it."
Based on the complaint, the Bengaluru cyber police registered an FIR under Section 66 of the IT Act which makes it a punishable offence for anyone to send offensive information using any electronic device or for anyone to send information that they believed to be false. A notice was then sent on January 5 to Mahantesh demanding that he divulge all details of the source including name, address and id proof.
However, according to Mahantesh's lawyer B. T. Venkatesh, they do not have the right to demand him to reveal the source. Venkatesh said, "One of the major rights of any journalist is source confidentiality. No one can question that. It is part of democratic expression. He doesn't need to disclose it. According to the complaint, it is an offense under the IT Act. But the police don't know the privileges of communication between a journalist and a source. Any information of this nature, if it is liable to be prosecuted, has to be an official secret under the Official Secrets Act. Only in this situation, a journalist is bound to disclose the details."