Judges, cops and civil servants: Can they have Social media friends in reality?

CYBER CRIME AGAINST WOMEN BY DEBARATI HALDER

Image courtesy: Internet 

In the fag end of May, 2018, news channels flashed the story of Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi, the army man who is hero to some and villain to some because of his controversial act of tying a Kashmiri man to a jeep using him as a human shield against the stone –pelters who were targeting army actions in Kashmir last year. He became (in)famous to many because the clippings of his controversial act became viral on the web. He grabbed the headlines again this month because of his controversial Facebook friendship with a Kashmiri woman who, the media says was trying to check in   with the Major and another person in a local hotel in Kashmir. It was reported that the said woman had claimed that she knew the Major through Facebook and his account was not in his real name. We know that social media including Facebook is used for secret surveillance by the government agencies and it has positive and negative aspects as well. Fake accounts are used by the police to detect and trap criminals including paedophiles, fraudsters and even terrorists.
But here, I am not actually concerned about pattern of use of social media by the government officials. I am concerned about professional ethics of certain categories of government servants who may not be allowed to befriend common people like what social media offers. This category may include judges belonging to higher and lower judiciary, government officials belonging to certain all India services including group A and B of central services etc.
Let me explain it broadly here:
Since ancient times judges are considered to be of high moral and judiciary is considered to be “an institution of integrity”. Several judgements including K.P.Singh vs. High Court of H.P. &ors,[1]High Court of Judicature for Rajasthan vs. Ramesh Chand Paliwal,[2]Tarak Singh vs. Jyoti Basu,[3]etc had established the fact that judges are expected to be like hermit, they should be honest and should “adhere to a code of moral value”.[4]In short, they should be inapproachable personally but approachable as an institution to be impartial. What does this mean? Judges cannot be on par with general individuals who may approach the institution of justice, i.e., the courts for seeking justice. They should not make themselves individually or privately approachable so that the possible litigants, who may approach their  courts, may not influence him. It is the principle of fair justice which to a large extent governs the code of conduct of judges. But we need to remember that in this era of social media, any individual can hardly be out of the net . While it is still expected that judges should not make themselves privately approachable, I myself have loads of Facebook friends who are in the judiciary. They share opinions, their personal photos with their chosen friends just like any other individual. But yes, their circle of friends may not be as big as any other common social media user. Many of them are directly connected with the Facebook pages of District legal services authorities, which not only spread awareness about legal rights, but also showcase performances of the particular government offices.  However, I do not have Facebook friends from higher judiciary, but nonetheless, many of “Their Lordships” may be easily approachable because of  digital messaging services like WhatsApp, which may be used to create ‘groups’ as well.[5]World wide this has become a cause of concern now; it has been suggested by many that judges while in service, should try to avoid social media as this may pull them in unnecessary trouble and make floodgates open for questioning their integrity.[6]But again, we can neither ignore the strong (social media) presence of judges like Justice Markendey Katzu, former Supreme Court judge who had courted controversy because of his blog posts, social media posts for strong criticism of court decisions.[7]Doesn’t this show that he may still be considered as falling in the ‘restricted netizen’ category even as a retired judge? Probably yes because he may never be seen as a general individual who may criticise judges and their judicial understanding of cases by virtue of his being a judge himself who is expected to not to lower the respect the judiciary; probably no, because he may still use his right to speech and expression to express his displeasure for the judgements which according to him, are not fare. But still then, he could not be equal to general individuals: the court questioned his act towards publishing post in social media criticising court’s decision in crucial cases like the final verdict of the sensational case of Soumya, who was killed by her rapist.
       High level civil servants including bureaucrats, officers of Indian Police Services etc have a high presence in the social media too. Most of their accounts may be private accounts. But there are several pages of their offices which may be made by their respective offices. This actually shows that even though the government and the courts continue to question data policy of social media companies like Facebook or Twitter, these social media sites are very much involved in government outreach mechanisms: for example, see the websites of certain city police offices/headquarters; all may show their Facebook presence. http://ahmedabadcitypolice.org/, https://www.bcp.gov.in/ ,http://www.tnpolice.gov.in/CCTNSNICSDC/Index?0 ; all may have their Facebook and twitter pages where individuals may access for information and even to reach out concerned police offices for immediate lodging of complaints. But private accounts of IAS or IPS officers are not connected with these pages. This means that they have a separate private presence in the social media. Their friends, their posts and their photographs are their private affairs just like any other general individual who may use social media sites for reaching out to friends. But still, they may not be out of surveillance for their conduct in their private social media accounts. Their children may also be held accountable for sharing parents’ pictures which may raise questions about their integrity: erstwhile J&K DIG Beig invited hoards of controversy when his son posted certain pictures of his dad which raised media storm because the posts suggested that Beig was abusing power.[8]Even though the son removed the posts, the pictures and hashtags were made viral and they are still available on internet.  It may actually mean that these officers may not have a private life even in social media. Gogoi in the same way, may also not have that privacy even if he may claim that he and the woman in question personally knew each other and this friendship was neither professional, nor was an abuse of power for harassing the girl offline or online.
In short, why such friendships between officers and civilians, their online presence and activities may raise questions at all? Misuse of power to harass and exploit civilians especially women could be one primary reason for such enthusiasm. But in case the friendships are genuine, posts by the officials reflect their personal and independent opinions and photographs shared in their social media sites are personal memoire , why they should be targeted and who makes these posts (in)famous for public and media? It is those ‘friends’ who may knowingly or unknowingly feed the enthusiastic ‘third persons’ by sharing /showing the private posts that may appear in their time line feeds. Remember Merin Joseph, the young IPS officer from Kerala who being a police officer herself, could not remain safe online? She had to encounter fake profiles with her picture, trolls and misogynist posts even though she was sharing some posts as a private person and not as an on duty officer. Trolls attacked her  posts and albums, some of which were not for public viewing. Privacy may be myth for these public servants  especially when they are active  in their private  social media accounts. Compared to 1990’s public servants have become more accountable now because of their web presence. After each UPSC result declarations, the social media accounts of successful candidates may immediately come into lime light. It works positively because their conduct becomes more transparent to public; it works negatively because they may slowly lose privacy being within the private social media account. The very much private personssuddenly come under lime light as not only the common people , but also the media starts data mining  to know them more than what is expected to be known. One name which comes in my mind right now is of Sandeep Nanduri, IAS, who is presently the District magistrate and collector of Tuticorin district. He had taken over as DM and collector Tutircorin at a very crucial time when the district was having agitation over Sterlite copper industries plant closure issue. Nanduri’s Facebook account may reveal his activities as a government official as well as a private individual. This may further mean that not only he himself, but his wife may also be targeted by trolls, stalkers and miscreants who may wish to approach him.
Untill now there is no clear-cut code of conduct framed for restricting judges and grade A and B officers of central government or even state government services from using social media (except  for certain issues like restriction from spreading hatred, criticising the government in certain key issues, leaking confidential data etc) and befriending  common people. They however may have to rely on the social media policies for data protection. But again, in such cases, they may be held responsible for choosing their virtual friends. We should not forget that there are instances  of honey trapping of government officials by ISI secret services; this may however show that privacy of the government officials may easily be breached if they themselves are not vigilant enough for their social media ‘friends’. There are clearly two arguments which may made in this regard: (i) such government servants may be completely barred from making themselves available to ‘public’ through their private social media  accounts , (ii) being part of  digital India movement they must be approachable to people through social media as well. However, considering the privacy and security aspects, I feel it is high time that government  makes a clear  policy as how they should be protected from predators and how they should conduct even when they are ‘privately public’.

Please Note: Do not violate copyright of this blog. If you would like to use informations provided in this blog for your own assignment/writeup/project/blog/article, please cite it as “Halder D. (2018),Judges, cops and civil servants: Can they have Social media friends in reality?”3rd June, 2018, published in http://debaraticyberspace.blogspot.com


[1]LPA No. 163 of 2009
[2] (1998) 2 SCC 72
[3](2005)1 SCC 201
[4]See for more in http://hpsja.nic.in/ethics.pdf. Accessed on 26.05.2018
[5] For example, see Maniar Gopi (2017),Vadodara: Gujarat HC slams VMC commissioner for sending WhatsApp message to judge. Published in India today on Semptember 8, 2017 https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/vadodara-gujarat-hc-vmc-commissioner-whatsapp-message-judge-1040341-2017-09-08
[6]For better understanding, see Singh Shaziah (2016), FRIEND REQUEST DENIED: JUDICIAL ETHICS AND SOCIAL MEDIA, Published in Journal of Law, Technology & the Internet · Vol. 7 · 2016. Accessed from https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1099&context=jolti on 25.05.2018
[7]For more understanding, see Vaidyanathan.A (2017), Justice Markandey Katju Submits Apology In Supreme Court Over Post Criticising Soumya Verdict, published in https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/justice-markandey-katju-apologises-to-supreme-court-over-post-criticising-soumya-verdict-1645845 on 06-01-2017. Accssed on 25-05-2018
,.
[8]For example, see Bashaarat Masood (2014),J&K DIG’s son posts photos of ‘Dad & I’ enjoying perks of power, published in http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/jk-digs-son-posts-photos-of-dad-i-enjoying-perks-of-power/ on Octiober 29,2014. Accessed on 25.05.2018

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