The media has a right to invade the privacy of suspects like Aryan Khan, whose father, Shah Rukh Khan, got the support of Salman Khan after the arrest of the star kid. Salman Khan’s exploits off-the-screen, like being convicted in 2018 for killing a protected blackbuck and allegedly running over sleeping pavement dwellers outside Best Bakery in Bandra, resulted in first his conviction by a trial court and then acquittal by the Bombay high court in 2015.
The Maharashtra government’s appeal against Salman Khan’s acquittal is pending in the Supreme Court while Salman earns his crores. Both the Khans are Pathans. They sink or swim together. And they can throw a few crores of rupees on their lawyer, Satish Maneshinde, who learnt the ropes in the chambers of the late Ram Jethmalani. Another stalwart in that chamber was senior advocate S B Jaisinghani, who later became additional solicitor general. Advocate Reshma Ruparel did not make it as big as Satish Maneshinde who, rumour has it, was not the great Ram Jethmalani’s favourite junior.
Involuntary public figure
Now, the right to privacy means the right to be left alone or the right to anonymity which is vital for our mental peace. But there is a concept called an involuntary public figure which implies that if you are related to a celebrity like Narendra Modi or Amitabh Bachchan or even a gangster like Dawood Ibrahim, or Pooja Bedi, like it or not, you will never be left alone.
What they say, wear, tear or bare will be devoured by the public through the media. After all, Narendra Modi’s brothers and his devout, estranged wife, shun publicity. But newshounds hound them. Just as a biopic has been made on Dawood Ibrahim’s sister, Haseena Parkar’s life. She evokes the same oohs and aahs as Shah Rukh Khan or Pooja Bedi.
After all, the right to fuel those oohs and aahs is guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. It is abridged by eight (un)reasonable restrictions added over a period of time to ensure the state does not fragment after these enactments. Even if the lives of our role models do. This is why actors like Rhea Chakraborty will bounce back with vigour to resuscitate their flagging careers because her right to earn crores is guaranteed under Article 21 which also guarantees her right to be left alone.
On August 24, 2017, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme court finally declared the right to privacy was a fundamental right. This was the culmination of a series of judgments beginning in 1962 when the UP police would visit the house of an alleged dacoit called Kharak Singh at odd hours, to confirm if he was present in his hut or not.
But if alleged dacoits enjoy their right to privacy, it can be argued so do Aryan Khan and Arbaaz Merchantt, whose high-profile lawyer father knows the loopholes in the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 inside out. So, both Aryan and Arbaaz may never remain in jail. Just as Sanjay Dutt used parole and furlough to stay out of prison for 146 days, making a mockery of the axiom that all are equal before the law because 27,400 poor prisoners were never granted this privilege.
A nine-judge bench declared the right to privacy was a fundamental right, thereby expanding the scope of Article 21 to perhaps near breaking point for the simple reason that whatever right the framers of the Constitution forgot to enumerate were conveniently clubbed under Article 21. Justice Chandrachud has explained this as the silences of the Constitution which the Supreme Court has expanded to include not only the right to privacy, but partly the right to information, the right to education and the right to a clean environment.
Right to know
But the right to privacy is the exact opposite of the right to know, which means both cannot co-exist. How do we reconcile these opposing ideas? The US Supreme Court had laid down in 1966 that a public figure cannot sue a newspaper for defamation even if the news is false unless the victim can prove the newspaper did it knowingly. The legal axiom is that you cannot stifle freedom of the media by the threat of defamation suits. Public figures have to smile and overlook false allegations.
The same logic will apply to Aryan Khan and Arbaaz Merchantt, apart from stars like the late Sushant Singh Rajput and his girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty. These role models in reel life are poor souls in real life because of their high life fuelled by drugs and alcohol. The fact that our Bollywood, Tollywood, and Mollywood is permeated by the global drug syndicate cannot be denied.
And when they are public figures, whether voluntarily or not, our right to information under Article 19 (1) (a) overrides their right to privacy under Article 21. This is because the 19th century jurist Jeremy Bentham declared the happiness of the masses overrode the rights of Aryan Khan, Arbaaz Merchantt or the late Sushant Singh Rajput, who were as yet unborn when this legal theory of utilitarianism was conceptualised in the 1830s.
Remote control of news channels
And so, our 252 news channels which telecast good news, bad news, liberated news and biased views obfuscate the fact that their promoters, advertisers and investors remotely control what is telecast. This is because these channels are owned by big business or politicians. Ipso facto, this implies that only moneybags enjoy the right to telecast under Article 19 (1) (a), which is not what our founding fathers envisaged.
These same moneybags fund political parties during elections, inform us how many crores Shah Rukh Khan has spent on Aryan Khan’s education in the US where he is pursuing graduate studies while allegedly smoking pot with his friend Arbaaz Merchantt. They tell us what they want us to know but hide what they do not want us to know like the book, Maaza Album, written by Pravin Mahajan which may tell us why he killed his brother Pramod Mahajan. This book, written in Marathi, is not available because we are told only what our elected rulers want us to know.
Privacy is vital for rich kids who may allegedly want to get high on drugs, just as the right to invade their privacy is vital for the media to survive. Both cannot co-exist. One right has to yield to the other.
The writer holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist-cum-advocate of the Bombay high court
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