On 24 February, The Quint published a story about the abuse of jawans after the Army had recently issued a circular which stated putting an end to the misuse of the “sahayak” system.
Following the death of one of the jawans featured in the video, The Quint took down the story on 3 March, in the interest of the investigation and the other jawans featured in the video.
On Wednesday, a women’s media body, Network of Women in the Media, India, demanded that the charges of abetment to suicide, among others, against The Quint’s Poonam Agarwal be dropped.
In its letter, the media association said:
We, the Network of Women in the Media, India, a forum for women media professionals across the country, condemn in the strongest terms the slapping of cases under the Official Secrets Act and abetment to suicide on journalist Poonam Agarwal for her video in The Quint in February this year, which sought to expose the exploitative ‘sahayak’ or ‘buddy’ system in the Indian army (the video has since been taken down).
The letter has been forwarded to the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi, Director General of Police Satish Mathur and Additional Chief Secretary SK Shrivastava.
The full text of the letter reads as follows:
We, the Network of Women in the Media, India, a forum for women media professionals across the country condemn in the strongest terms the slapping of cases under the Official Secrets Act and abetment to suicide on journalist Poonam Agarwal for her video in Quint in February this year which sought to expose the exploitative ‘sahayak’ or ‘buddy’ system in the Indian army (the video has since been taken down).
Our objections are:
1. The intent of any journalistic enterprise, including Ms Agarwal’s is to report on wrong-doings and misconduct in places of power where common citizens who feel scared of voicing their fears or complaints, do so to a journalist. The intent therefore is to strengthen systems and be the voice of the under dogs, in this case, the jawans. The intent is not to compromise national security.
2. The army cannot make the claim that Poonam Agarwal was giving out information on the army unless it wishes to make the case that the exploitative ‘sahayak’ or ‘buddy’ system is meant to be an official secret.
3. The army has not established how Poonam Aggarwal's under-cover report released in the public domain on a legitimate and legal news media site can be called "spying."
4. As far as entering a restricted area is concerned, the generally accepted line of inquiry is to establish why this was done. If it is to expose something that is of national interest and in the interest of exposing wrong-doing then it is practiced in India repeatedly and around the world. It does not justify her being charged with a violation of the Official Secrets Act.
5. To charge Poonam Agarwal with abetting the suicide of Lance Naik Mathew is far-fetched and completely misleading. In this case, the lens should apply to the army, and the inquiry they may have conducted on officers and jawans after Ms Agarwal’s report was released and the role this may have played. If the police is conducting a fair investigation, this is a question that will need to be answered in the course of the inquiry.
We would like to state that we are firmly behind Poonam Agarwal in her quest to seek justice against a system that has turned against her. We also propose that if the army or any individual for that matter would like to raise an objection about a report, they should take it up with the Press Council of India which is the proper forum to address any systemic lapses that may occur in the quest for the truth. We would also like to add that singling out the reporter with no attention to the establishment, The Quint, for which she works and which supported, edited and published her story seems like a disproportionate reaction.
We urge the government and the army to thoroughly investigate all angles of this case, and withdraw the charges under the Official Secrets Act and the abetting of suicide since they have no sound basis. It is also apparent that the government and the army is focused on Ms Agarwal in an effort to derail a thorough and much needed debate on the sahayak system. We demand that the issues raised by the report be given the serious attention they deserve.