A scandal that was not

Print edition : February 28, 2003

An inquiry initiated by the Supreme Court exonerates three Karnataka High Court Judges from the charge of involvement in a `sex scandal', giving rise to questions about the conduct of a section of the media in the matter.

in Bangalore

Members of the Judges' committee appointed by the Supreme Court - Justices C.K. Thakkar, Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court; Jawahar Lal Gupta, Chief Justice of Kerala High Court and; A.K. Patnaik, a senior Judge of the Orissa High Court - after hearing the submissions relating to the "Mysore episode" in Bangalore.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

THE report of a high-level judicial inquiry team clearing three Judges of the Karnataka High Court of any involvement in the so-called "Mysore sex scandal" has brought to a close a shrill campaign of personal vilification that was conducted largely in the pages of the print media in Karnataka. The inquiry committee comprised Justices C.K. Thakkar, Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court; Jawahar Lal Gupta, Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court; and A.K. Patnaik, a senior Judge of the Orissa High Court. The committee submitted its report to V.N. Khare, the Chief Justice of India on February 2, 2002, after a two-month long investigation. It was set up in December 2002 by G.B. Pattanaik, the former Chief Justice of India, in response to a slew of allegations in the media, and within sections of the judicial community, of "immoral behaviour" on the part of the three senior Judges. The report, which is confidential, is believed to have stated that there is "no evidence" against the Judges.

It has, in one stroke, demolished a sordid story of sex, sleaze and power, assiduously built up in a section of the media over a period of three months, with each day bringing a new and salacious trimming to the tale. In establishing the innocence of the Judges, it is not known whether the report has brought to light the equally important issue of the motives underlying the allegations. Nonetheless, for a period of three months the personal standing and professional careers of three members of the senior judiciary of the State were devastated by relentless media reportage on a concocted story of drunkenness and sexual misconduct in which they were alleged to have been involved, and which their professional code of conduct prevented them from responding to. A senior police officer with an unblemished service record was transferred on the baseless grounds that he was part of an official "cover-up" of the so-called "sex-scandal".

The case is reminiscent, in many ways, of the infamous Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) "Spy Scandal" of 1994, when false information fed to the media in Kerala ruined the careers of reputed scientists, and the lives of innocent women. Fortunately, in the present case, a corrective mechanism in the form of a high-power judicial inquiry committee was put in place even as the campaign against the Judges, fed by speculation and untruth, was gaining momentum. It is significant that those in the judiciary, who were the loudest in demanding that the Judges be put under suspension pending inquiry, have "welcomed" the report. But much damage has already been done, not only to those who were tried and convicted by the media, but to the media themselves. In December 2002, the Karnataka High Court initiated suo motu contempt proceedings against 14 media publications for having "scandalised the image of the judiciary" and most of them have presented their legal defence ("Update", Frontline, January 3). The media also face serious questions relating to their professionalism and accountability.

THROUGH the better part of November and December 2002, almost all national and regional dailies published from Bangalore and Mysore carried stories on the so-called "Mysore Sex Scandal" almost every day. News of this was first broken on November 5, with The New Indian Express and its sister publication, Kannada Prabha, carrying front-page reports with a Mysore dateline on a "prostitution racket" in a "posh hotel" involving "important officials from Bangalore". The story, which did not carry a by-line, cited police sources and unnamed eyewitness accounts. The next day's story in the Bangalore edition of The Times of India quoted the "Mysore Police" as saying that they were "shocked when they found three senior members of the legal fraternity in compromising positions with call girls". When the police officer who led the "raid" on the "posh hotel" tried to book a case, a "senior police officer" who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinate not to go ahead. The three officials allegedly "created a scene" in the hotel corridors before moving back to their rooms.

Within a few days of its appearance in the press, the phrase `sex scandal' no longer appeared in inverted commas, suggesting that there was enough evidence in the public domain to prove that the episode actually occurred. On November 7, The Hindustan Times reported that "top legal figures romped with women and brawled in a Mysore hotel on Sunday night". The Bangalore edition of The Times of India, which tracked the story from the start, with reports almost every day from its Mysore correspondent, soon put `Mysore sex scandal' in a red box to flag its stories. And yet there was no single version of what had happened. Starting as a "prostitution racket" involving "call girls" and "legal bigwigs" (the term most newspapers used to describe those who were involved in the episode, until their names were published), news reports subsequently said that the women with the "legal bigwigs" were themselves advocates.

By the middle of November, in addition to news of the reactions, particularly from within the judiciary, to the "sex scandal", the story as it appeared in newspapers was changing. Some newspapers said that the women were aspirants for a judicial position in Mysore and were promised the position by the Judges in return for sexual favours. The Times of India, quoting police sources, published a story on November 12 that said that the Judges had gone with three women advocates to a resort, where one of the Judges picked a quarrel with a hotel guest whose wife the Judge had tried to proposition. The guest reportedly informed the police, and a police inspector came to the resort. "Everyone knows what happened subsequently," the police source is quoted as saying. Other sections of the press reported that the police inspector called Mysore Police Commissioner C. Chandrashekar on learning of the identity of the offenders. The police chief allegedly came to the resort, reprimanded the inspector, and made him apologise to the Judges. The Judges and their women companions then reportedly left the resort in a private car. This story was widely carried in the English and the Indian language press.

The press also carried news of the media conference held by the Police Commissioner, in which he denied that such an incident had ever taken place. Nevertheless, the thrust of the reporting suggested a cover-up of the alleged incident, done by the State police in conjunction with the judiciary.

However, there was not a single crusading publication that attempted to authenticate the story independently, or get the witnesses to the alleged episode to confirm its veracity. There was no confirmation of the story, not from the waiters in the restaurant, nor from the `guest' and his wife who was allegedly the target of one drunken Judge's attention, nor from the police inspector who allegedly came to the spot. In fact, that some witnesses were actually denying the story only served to confirm the allegation of a cover-up. Witnesses, several media reports alleged, were threatened not to reveal the truth. Final confirmation, if it was indeed needed by now, of the "sex scandal" was provided in a story that The Times of India and the Vijaya Karnataka broke as headline news on November 30. The reports said that informed sources in the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) in New Delhi confirmed that it had conducted an independent investigation and that the episode had indeed taken place. The Times of India, for the first time, published photographs of Justices V. Gopala Gowda, N.S. Veerabhadraiah and Chandrashekaraiah, the three Judges allegedly involved in the `scandal'. It is pertinent that the purported I.B. version of the episode, as reported in the newspapers, did not provide a description of what actually happened.

The events that allegedly took place on the night of November 3 at "The Roost", Mysore, as reconstructed from media reports, was described in sordid detail in a letter written by the Financial Vigilance Forum, a Bangalore-based citizen's group, to the Chief Justice of India on November 30, 2002. One of the members of the forum, B.G. Koshy, was a petitioner of a criminal contempt notice against several media publications (76/2002, dated 16/11/2002) and subsequently of a writ petition (44726/2002, dated 7/12/2002) that asked the High Court to restrain the Judges from taking up any judicial work until absolved of the charges.

There were two other inquiries into the facts of the alleged sex scandal prior to the one instituted by the Chief Justice of India. As early as November 9, Justice N.K. Jain, the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court, ordered an inquiry to be headed by A.C. Kabin, Registrar (General) of the High Court, into the allegations. A team from the High Court visited the resort, spoke to possible witnesses, including the police, and drew a blank. No one could confirm the story. The Chief Justice then issued a notice in the press asking the public to send in evidence by phone, e-mail or fax. Twenty-six responses came in, though none of them contained any evidence that added anything material to the issue. On November 16, the Advocates Association of Karnataka and the State Bar Council issued statements demanding a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the alleged offences. Indian Federation of Women Advocates (Karnataka) president Sheela Anish stated that the issue had done immense damage to the image and confidence of women advocates. The explosion of anger and moral outrage from within the legal profession had its impact. Justice G.B. Pattanaik sent letters to the three Judges with a proposal for their transfer to other High Courts in the country. News of the transfer proposals had lawyers in Assam on the streets protesting against the transfer of a so-called "tainted" judge to their court.

One of the persons who gave evidence before the High Court inquiry committee was Police Commissioner Chandrashekar. A recipient of the President's Medal for Meritorious Service, Chandrashekar was at home celebrating a function with his family on the night of November 3. "Such a thing never happened," he told Frontline. "I did not stir out of my house that evening." He said his department also held an internal inquiry into the issue. He said: "My inquiries were confined to what is alleged to have happened on November 3, 2002. This did not happen. We then went back 30 days to see if anything like this happened earlier, but could find nothing." Chandrashekar learnt of his transfer and the name of his successor from television news on November 16. It was suggested that his presence inhibited his junior officers from speaking the truth before the inquiry committee. He handed over charge the next day, without even waiting for the order to reach him.

Through all this, the accused Judges, who had in effect been tried and convicted in the media, made no statements in defence of themselves. The Judges were bound by their code of conduct not to speak to the media, and their silence was misconstrued as further evidence of their guilt.

In an interview he gave to Frontline in early December 2002, R.P. Sethi, former Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court expressed anguish at the "reckless allegations against Judges without verification," noting that this was "likely to endanger the independence of the judiciary, particularly when the Judges cannot contradict the reports in public." Justice Sethi added: "We have evolved a code that says we will not go to the press. In Karnataka, the accused were named in a section of the media. We have no idea who the victims are. In some versions of the `sex scandal' they are call girls, in others they are women advocates, or job-seekers, or judicial trainees. While we appreciate that the media need not disclose their sources, there is at least a requirement that they must authenticate them. A person by becoming a judge does not cease to become a citizen of the country and enjoy the fundamental rights a citizen enjoys. No person can be condemned unheard. The principle of natural justice must be observed."

On his brief visit to Bangalore in December 2002, Justice Sethi tried to ascertain "from his own sources" what the `accused' Judges were doing on the evening and night of November 3. All the Judges, he learned, had alibis that could have very easily been checked out by a diligent reporter. Sethi said: "I do not think that anything I have learnt is conclusive proof that the alleged events of November 3 did not take place. I am not pleading an alibi. But why did not the press verify the claims of the Judges before publication? And their claims must, of course, be independently established by an impartial inquiry."

"I was very sure I would be vindicated," Chandrashekar told Frontline after the inquiry committee had cleared the Judges of all charges. He said: "Only I know what I have suffered and what I have been through. But I had a clear conscience and was quite prepared for any inquiry." Punished for doing his job conscientiously, Chandrashekar is still awaiting orders on his new posting. Sources close to the Judges say that they and their families have been through a most trying ordeal too.

The drama has not quite ended. The contempt notices against 14 media publications and 56 media editors, publishers and reporters, still stand. The Editors Guild of India has said that the action of the Karnataka High Court, of using the highly outdated criminal contempt laws against the media, is an infringement of press freedom. Nevertheless, in the light of the exoneration of the Judges by the inquiry committee, the issue of contempt acquires new significance. Secondly, the motivations underlying the accusations that snowballed into a virtual campaign of persecution against the three Judges, which had no basis in fact, also need to be explored. Which were the groups or interests that propelled the campaign? Influential sections of the media appear to have been made the instrument of a motivated campaign. Those who orchestrated this carefully planned intrigue appear to be closely linked to networks of power in the State and the Centre. There are voices from within the media that have been urging more demanding internal procedures and codes of conduct to ensure factual and even-handed reportage. In the matter of the fictitious `Mysore sex scandal', media coverage is perceived to have deviated in important respects from some of the central tenets of journalism.

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