Journalists not public officers, so will they escape punishment for corruption in chopper scam?

In April last year, reports had emerged that the Italy based helicopter manufacturing company AgustaWestland and its parent company Finmeccanica had paid around 50 crore rupees to Indian journalists as ‘bribes’ to secure the contract for supplying helicopters to the Government of India. This is (in)famously known as the “chopper scam”.

The contract worth around 3500 crores rupees was awarded to the AgustaWestland in 2010. However, the contract was frozen three years later when the CEO of Finmeccanica was arrested in Italy and the information about bribes became public. It was alleged that a total of 360 crore rupees were paid as bribes to various persons and entities in India. The then UPA government ordered an inquiry into the scam and the contract was cancelled in January 2014.

Various rumours and speculations regarding the names of journalists who would have received money from AgustaWestland has been doing the rounds of internet in the last couple of years. Rajdeep Sardesai had sent abuses to many Twitter users last year when his name was dragged into the controversy. These is no official word or list on who these “corrupt” journalists could be.

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But things could change this year. Earlier this week, Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition that argued that journalists should also be probed in the scam, and today LiveMint reported that CBI was all set to interrogate the journalists suspected of taking bribes from AgustaWestland.

This leads us to the question whether the investigation agencies can only interrogate the journalists or even frame charges against them for corruption?

Now the issue here is – a journalist is an employee with a private firm, not a public officer, while the anti-corruption laws are applicable only to public officers in India.

If a journalist takes money from AgustaWestland and shows it as his or her “income from other sources” and even pays tax on it, does that make him or her safe? Legally, a ‘bribe’ is a crime only when a public officer takes it.

Recall the IPL match fixing case? No corruption charges could be framed against cricketers because cricketers are not government employees. They were safe even after taking ‘bribe’ to underperform in cricket matches. In fact, the police could not find any relevant law under which the cricketers could be tried.

So can journalists too escape punishment due to such loophole?

Fortunately, the answer is no.

Supreme Court lawyer Ishkaran Bhandari told that once a public officer is involved in the whole chain of bribe giving and taking, the journalists could be deemed a part of the entire conspiracy and thus charges could be framed under the Section 120(B) of IPC (criminal conspiracy) and punishment under the Prevention of Corruption act could be awarded to them as well.

“Not just that, since foreign money is involved here, relevant sections of the anti money laundering act could also come into picture,” Bhandari explained, “So if any journalist is thinking that being a private citizen or a private employee can save them, they are mistaken.”

So it appears that this won’t be another Radia tapes kind of controversy, where journalists will go scot free as unethical behaviour doesn’t hurt the professional careers of Indian journalists. This time, it is illegal.

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