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Case Study: Ethics of Investigative Journalism

  • Category
    Ethics
  • Published
    14th Oct, 2021

Context

The IAS officer who caught on camera instructing policemen to “break heads” of farmers who breached a security cordon during a protest, has been transferred from the post of Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Karnal (Haryana) to the post of Additional Secretary in the Citizen Resources Information Department.

Question

You are a young IAS officer, with just a couple of months’ experience of field duty. You are posted as a Sub-Divisional Magistrate in a district where protests have been ongoing since a long period against recently passed law. The situation has gained further gained traction as the Chief Minister is going to visit the district for a rally. You are required to undertake protocol duties for the CM and ensure that his cordon is not breached by the protesters. As a pep talk and action briefing, you instructed the policemen to take harsh actions against the protestors and keep them at bay. You used remarks such as “break their heads”. This pep talk was recorded and released to the media. This incident has portrayed you in a very bad light. You are being called an insensitive officer, and your call for violence has initiated debates whether the public protestors should take arms in order to protect themselves. There are demands to lodge FIR against you for incitement of violence and attempt to murder. Eventually, you are transferred from your post of SDM to the post of an additional secretary in the Citizen Resources Information Department.

In this context, answer the following questions:

  • How would you explain your conduct which has been very unbecoming of an officer?
  • What would you do to rebuild the public trust in yourself?
  • What steps should be taken in order to ensure such behaviour is not repeated by other officers?

Answer

Peaceful protests are a form of freedom to expression, protected under Section 19 of the Constitution of India. The democratic right to peaceful protests has been acknowledged in a series of judgments by various High Courts and also the Supreme Court of India. Thus, taking action against such protests, without heeding to the series of steps (such as using tear, gas, opening of water cannon, followed by lathi charge and so on) is a sad default on the part of the state law enforcement body and it against the spirit of the Constitution of India. At the same time, safety and security of the high-risk individuals such as the CM, cannot be compromised. Nevertheless, the use of the language in the incident described in the question is not pardonable because such instructions coming from an authority figure could lead to unwarranted police action and create an atmosphere of fear – that may lead to violent protests.

(a)   Explanation of conduct:

At the outset, I will apologize profusely for the wrong choice of words made by myself in the pep talk and briefing. I have following explanation to offer:

  • The protests have taken a violent turn and stone pelting has started. Some of the policemen have been injured by stones and the morale of security forces has taken a hit, as they have been instructed to not retaliate under any circumstances. Therefore strict action was the need of the hour.
  • I was under pressure to boost the spirit of security forces, who have been on duty without break for the last 48 hours. As the leader of the forces, it was expected that it was expected of myself that I boost their confidence, energize them to sustain for longer hours of duty, to invoke a sense of service in them – but without asking them to shun their self-respect.
  • Despite this situation, my choice of word could have been better. Being a young officer, I was inexperienced and emotionally charged, and therefore, got carried away. I sincerely apologize for my conduct, I repent it and I resolve to learn from this mistake and become a better officer in future, for the service of the people and the nation.

(b)   Rebuilding of public trust in myself:

Trust is a hard-earned currency. In the given situation, earning of trust is even more challenging. I begin with the premise that the repairing of public trust will take time and delivery of certain good services on my part. I would undertake following steps to rebuild people’s trust in my abilities to deliver good public services:

 

  1. I will offer apology over various media platforms such as news channels, my social media accounts, apology letter in newspaper – to ensure it reaches wider pubic and my sincere sense of guilt for indulging in such behaviour is communicated well.
  2. I will offer to resign from my current position or proceed on leave, so that any legal action against me can be taken without any perceived influence
  3. In my newly assigned role of additional secretary, I see an opportunity to engage with citizen, as it is about ‘Citizen Resources Information’. I will make sure that I leave no stone unturned to deliver best services and enhance citizen resources information for better access by the public
  4. I understand that rebuilding of trust cannot be done in one day; therefore, I will be patient before embarking on any post such as the SDM/ DM again in my career.
  5. All my actions will be as per the Code of Ethical Conduct. I will also undertake sensitivity training and public-speaking lessons so that I become more aware of use of right language for effective communication

(c)    Steps that should be taken to ensure such behaviour are not repeated:

Unfortunately, the incident narrated in the question is not a rare occurrence. Officers are often accused of indulging in conduct that reeks of power-high attitude. They develop a sense of ‘ownership’ of their positions and offices, instead of a sense of ‘service’ via these positions and offices. The reasons for such attitude include, but not limited to, the following:

  • ‘Mai-baap’ concept of service delivery
  • VIP treatment of all officers by the general public, in various gathering
  • Portrayal of larger-than-life sense of position by the subordinates
  • Political compulsions and desire for ‘choice’ postings

Thus, these reasons require redressal to ensure officers do not just please their political bosses but serve the public in the real spirit. Following steps can be undertaken:

  • Yearly participation in sensitivity training sessions
  • Fixed criteria, such as years in service, ammonal performance ranking etc., before the officer is appointed in a particularly sensitive post
  • Restoring the sense of anonymity among public servants – with guidelines about how they can publicize their work on social media and not projecting it as an individual achievement

The above steps will be effective only if the officers evolve a strong sense of public service. Only this inner realization can amend the attitude of civil servants. Public should be empowered with the information on Civil Services Conduct Rules to check attitudinal highhandedness of the public officers.

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