Threats. Assault. Deadlines. All in a day’s work. Nishita Jha decodes the world of a crime reporter
JOURNALISTS RARELY write about journalists, until something goes terribly wrong. In the best case scenario, your name is eclipsed by the size of your headline. In the worst, you become front-page news, only to be tossed to the morgue to make space for the next day’s stories.
Mumbai-based crime reporter Jyotirmoy Dey’s murder sparked an agitation against the underworld terrorising the Press. Consider for a moment the forgotten headlines. In 1982, Ulhasnagar journalist AK Narayan was hacked to death by Maruti Yadav for his stories on the Mumbai mafia; Narayan’s body was chopped, divided into two trunks and deposited at his doorstep. In 1997, underworld kingpin Chhota Rajan’s men shot crime reporter Baljeet Parmar on Antop Hill, Mumbai. Every month, the Mumbai Police registers hundreds of complaints from journalists who cover crime — citing assault and threats.
The reason Dey is likely to become just another cautionary tale is not because the outrage surrounding his death is superficial, it’s because in the world of a crime reporter — especially in Mumbai — threats are usually a sign that things are going right. Mumbai-based reporter Mateen Hafeez, 30, who has covered crime for the past 10 years, barely pauses before he starts talking about 2004 — the year he realised what his beat was about. In the month of Ramzan, Hafeez was at gangster-turned- MLA Arun Gawli’s house, interviewing him on his connection with extortionist Sunil Ghate. An enraged Gawli slapped Hafeez and asked him to leave. As Hafeez entered the courtyard, hundreds of men surrounded him, snatched his phone, broke his motorcycle and thrashed him for four hours.
Finally, a barely conscious Hafeez was taken to the nearest police chowki, on the accusation that he’d entered an MLA’s house armed with a knife. “The policemen tried to get my fingerprints on the knife. They refused to believe I was a reporter. When I told one of them that I had been fasting all day, he gave me water, some dates and a phone to call my mother. The first person I dialled was my editor. The second, Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police.” It took Hafeez eight hours to get the police to file his report. Seven years later, he laughs, “Is this a good way to begin the story?”
This swagger is not unusual. Anand, 23, has been on the crime beat for the past one-and-a-half years for a newspaper and believes editors sell the beat — particularly to young boys — appealing to their spirit of adventure. He says the beat is challenging not just because it shreds your naiveté, but also because of the sheer number of people that one must network with on a daily basis. “Initially, it was difficult to walk into a police station even to ask where the SHO sits,” recalls Anand, the son of a businessman, who lives in Noida with his parents. In the past year, he has learnt to appreciate the inner workings of what he once described as a “Kafkaesque nightmare”. “The under-appreciated, low-ranking officer wants to be called ‘sir’. The IPS officer likes discussing Machiavelli. The guys who run the show and the ones on the ground have nothing in common, yet you must get them both to like you.”
‘Gradually, even the most sensitive reporter will ask ‘how many bullets, is the head severed, how badly is she burnt?’ without any emotion,’ says Anand
Navigating this complex social landscape is not something that journalism school prepares you for. Hafeez recollects how initially the thrill of meeting an ‘informant’ would take him zig-zagging all over Mumbai, until he realised it was safer to just call people near his office. Neeta Kolhatkar, bureau chief of NewsX, says the most sterling advice she ever received in her seven years of crime reporting came from the deceased Hemant Karkare — policemen might be friendly, but they are not your friends. “The police are as often my source as they are the impediment to a story,” she agrees. Others will sweetly swallow official press statements, paying little heed to how confessions were extracted. Ambarish Bhat, principal correspondent with Bengaluru’s Deccan Chronicle, thinks the first rule of crime reporting should be: don’t trust the police. “A lazy reporter and a corrupt cop share a symbiotic relationship. The reporter will not go the extra mile, and the policeman will not encourage him to do so. There are three versions to a story — the police’s, the complainant’s and that of the accused. A crime reporter must also investigate witnesses.” Sanjeev Yadav, investigating reporter with Cobrapost, believes the police is too invested in saving its own reputation, which is why reporters play a bigger role in unearthing evidence. Part of the swagger comes from believing you are not just reporting a crime, but actually solving it.
KOLHATKAR COMPARES reporters to doctors “finding and removing malaise in society”. Both must develop hardened exteriors in order to survive their jobs. “It is depressing. I covered the Prasadnagar taxi driver who gangraped and sodomised three children for 18 months before he was caught. Even 50 years from now, I will recall it with a shudder,” admits Anand. “Gradually, even the most sensitive reporter will ask — ‘how many bullets? Is the head completely severed? How badly is she burnt?’ without any emotion. It is natural but also psychotic. It changes you.”
If the world of crime seems like too much for a woman to deal with, pick up a copy of ex-crime reporter S Hussain Zaidi’s most recent book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai, where he introduces a new cast of characters to the usual suspects — Gangubai, the matriarch of Kamathipura, Jenabai, Haji Mastan’s adviser and Ashraf, who wreaks havoc on the system when her husband is shot in a fake encounter. Hafeez estimates that there are about 20 percent female crime reporters in India, but does not think this is a dismal figure. Kolhatkar feels technology and a vigilant media have also changed the landscape of crime reporting for women. “People worry about sting cameras and prefer to talk on the phone. I don’t mind. I’m selective about who I drink with,” she says.
The bravado and dogged determination comes with an invisible price. In his early days as a crime reporter, Sahara Samay’s Rajiv Ranjan wrote about a pregnant homeless girl who showed up at Delhi’s Ambedkar Hospital for her delivery, and was refused admission. The child died in the absence of medical aid. Ranjan stirred up editorials until the doctor in question was fired. A few years later, Ranjan accompanied his pregnant wife to Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital for delivery, and found the same doctor in charge. “He told me I was responsible for ruining his life.” Eventually, the doctor agreed to look after his wife’s delivery. A few hours later, she suffered a miscarriage. Ranjan muses, “Maybe she was too weak…” but his instinct refuses to let him take comfort in this excuse. “I still don’t know why I agreed. I guess a part of me believed that he wouldn’t fail his profession,” he trails off. Sometimes, what a crime reporter needs most of all is the ability to forget.
Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.