New Delhi, Jan 9: Since it came to power at the Centre in 2014, the Narendra Modi government has shared an uneasy relationship with a section of the media and supporters of freedom of speech.
While on the one hand, a set of media organisations and journalists are being labelled as pro-Modi, the rest is in a collision with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
The latest clash between a section of the media and the government came to the forefront when a journalist reported in detail about Aadhaar data breach in the English daily, The Tribune.
According to the report, anonymous people were selling details of a billion Aadhaar Card account holders over WhatsApp groups for just Rs 500.
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the Aadhaar-issuing body, dismissed the media report and called it a case of "misreporting".
Instead of conducting an internal investigation to find out the truth over alleged data breach of Indians, the UIDAI decided to file a first investigation report (FIR) against Rachna Khaira, the journalist who did the investigation report.
The Editors Guild of India condemned the FIR filed against Khaira and sought government intervention for its withdrawal. The guild has also called for an "impartial" investigation into the matter.
"Instead of penalising the reporter, the UIDAI should have ordered a thorough internal investigation into the alleged breach and made its findings public. The guild demands that the concerned Union ministry intervene and have the cases against the reporter withdrawn apart from conducting an impartial investigation into the matter," the guild said in a press release.
"The guild condemns the UIDAI's action to have The Tribune reporter booked by the police as it is clearly meant to browbeat a journalist whose investigation on the matter was of great public interest. It is unfair, unjustified and a direct attack on the freedom of the press," it said.
The reporter of The Tribune newspaper has been booked under the Indian Penal Code sections 419 (punishment for cheating under impersonation), 420 (cheating), 468 (forgery), 471 (using a forged document) and also under sections of the Information Technology Act and the Aadhar Act, it added.
Amid outrage on the FIR lodged over the reporting of alleged Aadhaar data breach, the government on Monday said it has been filed against "unknown" accused while asserting its commitment to the freedom of the press.
A day after the Delhi Police confirmed registering of an FIR on January 5, based on a complaint by Aadhaar-issuing body UIDAI, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad took to Twitter to clarify the government's position on the issue.
"The government is fully committed to freedom of press as well as to maintaining security and sanctity of Aadhaar for India's development. FIR is against unknown," he said.
Though the complaint by UIDAI named four persons, including the Chandigarh -based daily The Tribune's reporter, Prasad said the FIR was against "unknown".
"I've suggested UIDAI to request Tribune and its journalist to give all assistance to police in investigating real offenders," he said.
The UIDAI also said that it is committed to the freedom of the press and will approach the newspaper and its reporter for cooperation in the investigation of the alleged data breach.
"We're going to write to @thetribunechd and @rachnakhaira to give all assistance to investigate to nab the real culprits. We also appreciate if Tribune and its journalist have any constructive suggestion to offer," the UIDAI said in a tweet.
After filing the police complaint, the UIDAI had, in an earlier statement, said: "This is a case in which even though there was no breach of Aadhaar biometric database because UIDAI takes every criminal violation seriously, it is for the act of unauthorised access, criminal proceedings have been initiated."
The UIDAI had also said that it respects free speech, including the freedom of the press, and its police complaint should not be viewed as "shooting the messenger".
The Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, Harish Khare, had said in a statement on Sunday that "the authorities have misconceived an honest journalistic enterprise and have proceeded to institute criminal proceedings against the whistleblower".
He said the daily would explore "all legal options" open to it to defend its freedom to undertake serious investigative journalism.
As the debate over freedom of press rages once again, time for the Modi government to prove its commitment towards protecting the rights of media fraternity by ending the culture of FIRs against journalists who have dared to raise uncomfortable questions against the ruling dispensation.
Otherwise, statements like the one issued by Prasad is nothing but hollow claims which in no way help to dissipate fear that has already entered the hallowed portals of journalism.