A day after five armed men attacked Parliament on 13 December 2001, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police went on record claiming that it had tracked down several people suspected to be involved in attack. Following this statement, they arrested 12 people, including three Kashmiri men — Delhi University professor Geelani, Shaukat Hussain Guru and Mohammed Afzal —and Afzal’s wife Afzan.
Prior to the arrests, reports carrying confessions, including descriptions of the crime, were splashed all over. If a column in Hindustan Times stated belligerently that the “terrorists” had spoken to Geelani before he called a Pakistan-based phone number, the headline of a Times of India report called the du professor the “terror plan hub”. While such reports and stories created a tide of opinion against the suspects, the government’s approval and endorsement of Zee TV’s docudrama December 13th, which recreated events of the Parliament attack, led to further witch-hunting and branding of the suspects as terrorists.
When the high court found no evidence to back the charge that Geelani was the mastermind of the attack, he was acquitted and so was Afzan. But, by then, it had become impossible for the acquitted terror suspect to return to the day-today routine of “normal life”.
Could the public perception be changed after the court found no evidence of guilt? Would the media organisations retract their stories and apologise to Geelani for misrepresenting the facts? Afzal was less fortunate as the lack of evidence didn’t prove sufficient to acquit him, for the Supreme Court stated that he had to hang to “satisfy the collective conscience”. The acts of omission and commission by the media that led to the collective conscience finding itself ranged against Afzal shows how the press can influence the odds of a person living or dying.
A similar vilification campaign was taken up by TV channels and the social media when an allegation of sexual harassment was made against Khurshid Anwar, executive director of an ngo, Institute for Social Democracy. While the veracity of the charges can still be disputed, a sustained social media campaign coupled with India TV’s extensive coverage of the issue forced Anwar to take his life. He was branded a rapist as soon as the complaint came under the media glare. India TV went into campaign mode with chants to bring to book the man who perpetrated injustice on a woman. Soon after that, Anwar jumped to his death.
Anwar’s well-wishers, academicians, activists and journalists criticised the media for its role in branding Anwar as a rapist even before an fir was lodged. “The India TV report by Rajat Sharma regarding the alleged rape by Anwar came exactly a year after Nirbhaya’s rape, i.e., 16 December 2013,” says Ankita Chandranath, a member of the forum Justice for Khurshid Anwar. “Why did the media have to wait until the anniversary of Nirbhaya’s rape to report on Anwar’s case considering the rape happened in early September? The entire narrative of the India TV report was not just one-sided but also scripted. The girl’s testimony against Anwar on camera was heavily edited and aggressively marketed as ‘doosri Nirbhaya’.”
Inside a TV newsroom, stories that grab headlines are of paramount importance. If a channel offers balanced reportage, another channel that offers the same story in a sensational manner could grab the viewer’s attention, thereby leading to higher trps and ad revenue. As a result of this vicious circle regulated by corporate honchos, reporters are often pushed to concoct or carry stories doled out by unnamed sources, so that they bring trpboosting material to the table.
Then there is the question of unnamed sources, variously described as “highly placed” and “top”. Most sources within the government shy away from naming themselves and this anonymity also enables them to plant stories. Though the reporters are expected to protect their source, editorial policies should act as responsible ‘filters’ in cases where such manipulation is possible.
THE RIGHT KIND OF MEDIA CAMPAIGN
Four cases where journalism played a stellar role in the fight for justice
JESSICA LAL A simple SMS sent to various media organisations anonymously led to a candle light march to India Gate in protest against the acquittal of Jessica’s killer. In 1999, Manu Sharma, son of a Haryana politician, shot Jessica in Tamarind Court, a New Delhi restobar, in front of 200 people. Under pressure exerted by the media, including a Tehelka probe, the court convicted the killer irrespective of the fact that his father was an influential Congress MP from Haryana.
HONOUR KILLING Nitish Katara, a student of Institute of Management Technology, was killed when his romantic involvement with Bharati Yadav was discovered by the girl’s family. He was murdered by Vikas and Vishal Yadav, DP Yadav’s sons, as he belonged to a different caste. Vikas Yadav would have escaped with the help of his father’s influence had it not been for NDTV which exposed the tape recordings of the accused’s confessions. Bharati had been sent to London during this whole episode and came back only when her passport was revoked.
ADULTERATED PETROLEUM It took a decade for S Manjunath, an Indian Oil Corporation’s grade A officer, to get justice. The credit goes to various activists and the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust that kept alive the case. In 2005, Manjunath had ordered the sealing of two petrol pumps for three months as they were selling spurious petroleum in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh. He was murdered for conducting a surprise raid on a petroleum pump that opened up within a month. Six people were convicted including the petrol pump owner Pawan Kumar Mittal.
DEATH BY A BMW Sanjeev Nanda was sentenced to five years in prison by the Supreme Court and was let off after two years. The incident occurred in 1999 when Nanda, due to his drunk driving, ran over six people including three policemen, eventually killing them. Had it not been for the extensive pressure by the media, the influence wielded by his grandfather SM Nanda (former Naval chief) could have led to his acquittal.
Instead, the policy in effect seems to be one of keeping silent when the media violates ethics while reporting on investigations of murder or rape.
“Reporters alone can’t be blamed,” says a Delhi-based senior journalist. “Reliance on source-based journalism, despite its dangers, is a vital tool. And where the actual scene of crime is cordoned off, reporters have no direct access to facts and so have to depend on what the authorities choose to present in accordance with their interests. This selective rendering of facts leads to dramatically different conclusions.
“And in cases such as Aarushi, this is coupled with an obsessive lingering on the sexual aspects of the crime. It is the media version of the snuff video, where gore is consumed for its own sake. It’s not the reporters alone who are to blame, for there is anecdotal evidence that readers pore over every excruciating detail. The effect is similar to the fascination that a piece of fiction or cinema exerts. The editorial filters that can check this are themselves subject to their operations, just like judges are not immune from social realities. Editorial objectivity is always difficult to trust entirely as it often masks unfairness.”