- NL Sena
A soldier spoke about what a sahayak does. He had no idea a journalist was listening.
Roy Mathew (33), a gunner posted in Deolali Cantonment in Maharashtra, was found hanging from a ceiling in an abandoned Army barrack on March 2, 2017.
About a week ago, Roy, who comes from Kollam district in Kerala, had featured in an “exposé” by The Quint. Headlined “Soldier or Servant: The Quint Exposes Army’s Abused Sahayak System”, the report ostensibly explored how Army jawans deployed as sahayaks — or ‘buddies’ – in peace postings are made to perform menial tasks like washing clothes and walking pets by officers and their families.
Within a day of the story appearing online, Roy disappeared. The last conversation that he had with his wife, Fini, was on February 25, at about 8:30 pm. He told her he was afraid he might lose his job.
While the exact reason of his death is now a matter of an investigation, the circumstances surrounding it point towards serious editorial lapses by The Quint.
Speaking to Newslaundry, his brother, John Mathew, stated that Roy was unaware that he had been speaking to a journalist when he spoke to The Quint’s reporter, Poonam Agarwal. Shockingly, John also stated that Roy had no idea that he was being recorded. “Roy didn’t know that the lady [Agarwal] was from the media,” John told Newslaundry. “There were two to three people with Roy. The lady approached them and started making conversation with them.” He believes Agarwal used a hidden camera to record his brother’s conversation.
John further stated that Roy had told him that Roy had spoken to Agarwal assuming that she was a social worker. “She developed a good rapport with them and began asking them about their duties and what all they were made to do there,” he said. “Roy and the others spoke to her unaware of the fact that they were being recorded.”
Given John’s statement, it appears that Roy had no idea his conversation with Agarwal would form part of a report or was being used for any journalistic purpose. Given the Army has a strict code that forbids its soldiers and officers from speaking to the press, it’s debatable whether Roy would have disclosed any of the details that he did to Agarwal if he’d known she was intending to make his account public. Also, Roy did not approach the journalist to register a complaint against his seniors, which implies the jawan had very little agency and control over the narrative that The Quint ultimately published as a so-called expose.
“He was very upset when the video was put up online. When he last spoke to us, he told us, ‘I might lose my job, I am troubled’,” John told Newslaundry. Roy’s wife told the press that she wants a probe into his suicide. When Newslaundry tried to get in touch with her, we were told she was too distraught to make any more public statements.
John added that the family would wait for the postmortem report before taking further action in the matter.“He could have done it [committed suicide] out of mental pressure that he would lose his job. In the video, his face has been blurred, but it can be confirmed from his voice and body structure that it was Roy. He is wearing a blue shirt, has a phone and a wedding ring.”
Click on the link to The Quint’s story and what you’ll get is a message that reads: “Uh-oh! Looks like you took the internet equivalent of a wrong turn.”
There’s no explanation for why the story has been taken offline. However, John’s testimony raises serious questions on the role of the organisation and its editors in treating an extremely sensitive issue with rank callousness.
First, there is very little justification and editorial sense in carrying out a ‘sting’ operation on unsuspecting jawans. The point isn’t that The Quint picked its subject hastily. Especially when it comes to institutions whose workings are largely inaccessible to the public, journalistic investigations are important and necessary. However, undercover journalism should ideally be the last resort in any story. While the ethics of sting journalism are hotly debated, there’s no ambiguity on its fundamental guiding principle: a sting should expose the wrongdoer, not the victims of an alleged wrongdoing. If the idea was to report on the abuse of the sahayak system in the Army, The Quint could have done so with off-the-record conversations with jawans after assuring them of their privacy and earning their trust. This also points at the insensitivity with which the media often treats those who don’t enjoy social importance and are consequently most vulnerable. Put bluntly, a sahayak is easier to ‘sting’ than a General or Colonel.
Moreover, as John pointed out, The Quint made very little effort to protect Roy’s identity. While the faces of the jawans featured in The Quint’s original story were pixelated, their voices were not changed, making it painfully easy to identify them. In Roy’s case, his physique and clothes easily give away his identity.
It must be noted here that a story such as this would have passed through several editorial layers. Protecting identities is a basic journalistic practice in sensitive stories, and that it was overlooked raises serious questions about the editorial rigour that was applied.
According to John, when Roy went missing, his family had communicated as much to the reporter. “We called her and told her that Roy had gone missing after raising concerns about the video that she had shot and published,” John said. He said Agarwal had assured them that she’d look into the matter, but nothing discernible was done.
Newslaundry reached out to Agarwal, The Quint’s founder Raghav Bahl and Chief Executive Officer Ritu Kapur with the following questions:
1) Was Roy Mathew aware that you were filming him? Did he consent to having been filmed?
2) The Quint has at places called the story a sting. If that is so, were the jawans you interviewed unaware that you had been recording them. Could you explain the editorial decision behind stinging them?
3) The video put up by Quint makes little effort to protect identities. One can recognise Roy by the phone, the ring on his finger and his voice. Was it not deemed important to cover his identity so that he doesn’t get into trouble with his bosses?
4) Was it made amply clear to Roy that he had been speaking to a journalist when he spoke to you and did he know the story would appear on Quint along with the video?
The story will be updated if and when they reply. Our calls to both Agarwal and Kapur yielded no response.
Meanwhile, in a press release, the Army has placed the responsibility of Roy’s suicide squarely upon The Quint, albeit without naming the website. The statement said Roy was asked “leading questions on his duties as a buddy without his knowledge.”
When Newslaundry asked John if Roy had complained of harassment at the hands of his seniors, he said that Roy had said he shared “a good rapport” with the colonel to whom he was attached. Even in The Quint’s video, he only lists out his duties and doesn’t complain against his seniors.
Whether or not the reporter asked leading questions or misrepresented what Roy and others stated is something only a thorough probe can establish. None of this is likely to be any consolation to Roy’s family. “They don’t understand what are the repercussions of the work they do,” a grieving John told Newslaundry.