A media trial for Satyam’s Ramalinga Raju?

The grant of bail to Satyam Computers founder Ramalinga Raju has sparked outrage. But, as often happens in our country, it is not clear who it is directed against – the laws of the land, the judiciary, in this case, the Andhra Pradesh High Court, the prosecutors or just plain circumstance. That Raju spent most of the 17 months not in a sooty prison cell but in a VIP-like hospital room in Hyderabad probably exacerbated the reaction, but that should hardly cloud our assessment in a country in which the hospital bed is the fastest path for an arrested VIP.

Even an upbeat anchor such as Menaka Doshi, on CNBC TV18 (which traditionally leans toward sober coverage of business) couldn’t quite restrain her feelings of outrage on camera. Thankfully, her guests did and did commendably.  One of them pointed out that even Harshad Mehta, architect of India’s biggest stock market scam, had been released on bail a mere three months after his arrest, whereas Raju had been held for a long 17 months while investigations took place and, presumably, should have been near-complete.

If that was one media reaction, Mint surprised, too. The financial daily that is setting standards in business reporting failed the simple objectivity test. “Satyam case weakens with Raju’s release,” its news headline said on Page One. The first line of the report read: “Chances of a speedy resolution to l’affaire Satyam receded on Wednesday with the Andhra Pradesh high court granting bail to the company’s founder and former chairman, B. Ramalinga Raju….”

Both are strong opinions, not news. Even if they had been expressed in an editorial they would be arguable. There is no evidence to suggest the case is weaker merely on account of Raju’s release and it would be presumptuous to say that Raju’s release still threatens further investigations. The headline, presumably, is the expression of a copy editor’s bias. The case has reportedly been rendered weak by many other facts, not least the lack of progress by investigators. Also, “chances of a speedy resolution,” if any such thing exists in our criminal justice system, hinges largely on the agility and skill of the prosecutors, not on holding a man behind bars for the foreseeable future.

The way I see it, Raju already had been held for too long. In most other functioning democracies, he would have been released sooner. Of course, Indians courts are loath to do so and have good reason for it. People like Raju are extremely powerful in our hierarchical, and sometimes feudal, society. They can easily tamper with the evidence and coerce witnesses. But how long is sufficiently long to hold a man and when does it become a simple human rights violation?

We, even the so-called liberals in the media, believe that a man like Raju should not only be thrown in jail, but also held there for as long as prosecutors need to make out a case. We would even want to deliver our own verdict. Such is the activist role the media has usurped for itself. While this has been laudable in cases such as the Jessica Lall murder case or the so-called BMW case in which a politician’s son ran over poor people on a footpath, the media’s role has been dubious, for example, in the mysterious murder of Aarushi Talwar, a Delhi-region teenager, in her own home.

In the best of times, media activism is a slippery slope and I don’t see any reason why editors should let their instincts over-ride wiser counsel in complicated cases of white collar crimes. The Satyam case is one such and, if you could ignore a small number of shareholders, one that has little bearing on the larger public. Tech Mahindra, the company that bought Satyam in an auction, has shared no financial details and investigators have announced nothing. Let’s admit that we still do not know how, or how much, Raju stole from Satyam. Or, in the light of Raju’s retraction of his original confession, if he stole at all. Still, I almost signed off this posting with the following sentence: “It would be sad if Raju were to walk free in the end.” Such are our subconscious biases. But, luckily, my journalistic instinct prevailed. Even though this is a blog in which I am allowed to freely express my opinion, I don’t think I should be sad if Raju walked free. I should be sad if investigators never got to the bottom of the case and never offered us a full view of the facts.