The Sensation Trap

BY DUJ| IN Media Practice | 11/10/2008
By and large, the press has forsaken the use of certain prefixes such as ‘alleged’ and ‘suspected’. Most newspapers described those killed and arrested in Delhi as terrorists.
A second extract from the report of the DELHI UNION OF JOURNALISTS on the Jamia encounter. Photo: allegedly from Atif’s laptop, released by Delhi Police.

Apart from confusion about facts, we are deeply concerned at the implicit biases in many news reports. This becomes blatant in screaming headlines in print or uncalled for dramatization on television. Far more caution is called for in reporting events of such serious nature that pose a grave threat to communal harmony. We wish to use this report to warn our co-professionals of the danger of demonizing an entire community by questioning their loyalties to the country and putting their lives at risk. It is vital that we exercise utmost restraint while reporting events that further polarize communities.


Regrettably, in the competition to grab eyeballs we sometimes resort to hype, forgetting that some issues are too explosive for such treatment. They are volatile enough without the media adding fuel to the fire. Unfortunately there are several instances of such coverage. We cite one blatant example. On September 20, 2008, The Hindustan Times (Sept. 20) devoted all of page 3 to reports on terror, with the bold page slug saying "TERROR HUNT".  The shrieking banner headline was ¿India¿s Bin Laden was a good boy in school¿. This was the headline for a report based on interviews with the schoolteachers of the alleged terrorist Abdus Subhan Qureshi, one of the men arrested in Mumbai for involvement in bomb blasts. The teachers claimed that he was a quiet boy and a good student. The story opens with the sentence: "The world may be calling him India¿s bin Laden but it¿s an image Abdus Subhan Qureshi¿s teachers find hard to reconcile with his school-day persona." The story did not warrant the headline. Such headline-givers live in a world of their own. It is sheer exaggeration to label someone hitherto unknown to the average citizen as a ¿Bin Laden¿. 


Frequently, the language used by the media to describe such incidents and suspects leaves much to be desired. It lays the media open to the charge of being judgmental and biased.


By and large, the press has forsaken the use of certain prefixes like ¿alleged¿ and ¿suspected¿. Most newspapers have described those who were killed and arrested in Delhi as terrorists. It is a basic premise of Indian law that no person may be presumed guilty unless proved otherwise. The media¿s use of epithets like ¿terrorist¿ without the qualifying adjective ¿alleged¿ or ¿suspected¿ amounts to a declaration of guilt without trial in a court of law. This is equivalent to trial by the media.  Journalists should know better. We understand that reporters in the field work under tremendous stress and pressure to be the first with the news. However, some editorial control of language should be exercised at the desk which is sadly missing in many reports.


Television reports have been even more blatant, with the words ¿alleged¿ or ¿suspected¿ simply missing from the language used by both reporters and anchors.


On September 19, the TV channels first began breaking the news around noon that cops in the city were battling ¿terrorists¿ holed up in L-18, Batla House, Jamia Nagar. The reporters in the field sounded breathless with excitement reporting whatever they saw or heard. Some talked to residents without taking the elementary precaution of blurring their faces or concealing their identities. These residents, we presume, did not seek anonymity but some of them later complained to the DUJ team that visited the area later that cameras were flashed at them without even seeking their permission and they wondered if that exposed them to risk. Since the TV reporters were vying for more news in conditions that must have been rather confusing at the site of the incident,  the editors in the studio could perhaps have exercised some restraint keeping the safety of such residents in mind.


The newspapers carried the reports in the next day¿s edition. Newspapers had at least eight hours to finalise their reports. Despite this, most of the newspapers mentioned in this report used only one source, the Police, in their lead stories. The line between the reporter and the source is completely blurred in these stories.


For instance, The Times of India said in its first lead "….Delhi police killed two terrorists including key SIMI operative, Bashir alias Atif, who allegedly played a crucial role in the Sept 13 Delhi blast."


Note that Atif has been killed, so the press has not been able to talk to him. Yet, the police version that he was a terrorist has been taken at face value without appending any evidence.


Reporters by definition must be doubting Thomases. They have no right to suspend disbelief while on the job. Otherwise all reporting will become meaningless. In fact the search for new angles not only forms the cornerstone of the serious competition between reporters but throws up new facets of any unfolding story. It is clear that at least to begin with, most reporters suspended disbelief while reporting the operation. Considering the fact that the Delhi Police has attracted much flak by the media in the past for its inept handling of crime, this suspension of disbelief and showering of encomiums on the police seems strange. This can either be a result of ¿lazy¿ reporting dependent solely on handouts or the belief that people accused of serious offences can be bumped off with impunity. Both have serious implications for the profession and cannot be justified on any grounds, moral or professional.


In this case the media seems to have competed in superlatives to describe the martyrdom of Special Cell Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma and abusive epithets for those accused of being terrorists. Some sections of the media have even dubbed Azamgarh, identified as the home town of many of the suspects, as ¿Atankgarh¿ (Den of terror).


We condole the death of Inspector Sharma in the course of his duty but it is his death above all that underlines the fact that the operation was probably mounted in a hurry and not meticulously planned as some papers would have us believe. Had some care been given to planning, perhaps the two suspects could have been arrested alive. They could have been a source of very important information had they turned out to be what the police claim they were. We have no firm belief in either the innocence or the culpability of those killed and arrested. We only wish to underline that there is no substitute for scientific investigation and that such investigation minimizes the possibilities of collateral damage.


An Exception to the Trend


In contrast to most other dailies, The Mail Today did a good job of reporting the incident, incorporating the weak points in the police version and some questions in its lead story. In fact it is the only paper that in its lead on Sept. 20 played up the fact that Atif Amin had recently filled up a tenant verification form at Jamia Nagar Police Station, with a copy of his driving license, his mobile number and his previous address in Sangam Vihar. All the details were later found to be correct. The paper argues that if the police had actually moved to verify the form, they could perhaps have averted the bomb blasts. It also says that either this points to Atif¿s innocence or indicates that he was a devious terrorist who wanted to avoid raising suspicion.


Mail Today had even made the effort to talk to the Azamgarh police and the SHO of Saraimeer police station under whose jurisdiction Atif¿s village falls. The SHO S.N. Singh, according to the paper, said none of Atif¿s family members has any criminal record.


The picture of Sharma being led away by two men has also been used in full. However the picture is not credited to anyone.


Sounding a Different Note


Veer Arjun on September 20 gives a detailed description of the operation that is at variance with the versions of other papers. It is also at variance with the versions of the eyewitnesses interviewed later by many media people, including the DUJ team. It is at variance even with the police¿s claim that two suspects escaped while the operation was on.


Veer Arjun says, on Sept 20, quoting Special Cell officers, that they had made meticulous preparations. They were concerned that the suspects may get into the mosque nearby or hold innocent people hostage. So the Cell set up a large team of the police to go to the area at the crack of dawn. Some policemen used loudspeakers to warn people to close their doors and windows properly.


In fact, had loudspeakers been used, the suspects would have vanished instead of waiting for the police to come knocking at their doors. It does not occur to the reporter to cross-question this claim.


Veer Arjun also reports that people came out after the shootout and raised slogans against the Delhi police, claiming that the police first brought the "suspects here and then it was given the form of an encounter. Bullets were fired only by the Cell. They saw no bullets being fired from the other side. If this encounter was a real one,  why was the media kept at a distance from the site? Two years ago also,  two days before Eid,  there was an encounter here which was doubtful".   It goes on to report that a battalion of police was posted there in view of this reaction and it managed to control the crowd after an hour.


Punjab Kesari¿s September 20 lead story concentrates on the martyrdom of Sharma and has only three paragraphs. The story begins with the inspector¿s bravery and ends with it.


Interestingly enough, it quotes the Police Commissioner as saying that Atif¿s companion Saif was injured and arrested.  No other daily that we looked at has reported that Saif was wounded.


The Police Commissioner has also been quoted as saying, "This encounter had no connection with the bringing of Abu Bashar to the capital." (page one, lead story.) This is important in the context of reports that Bashar, the chief suspect in the Ahmadabad blasts, was brought to Delhi and taken around Batla House prior to the operation. There is speculation that he pointed out the flat in Batla House.


Amar Ujala¿s heading suggest that the police cracked the case after seven days of work and the ¿killers¿ were killed. "Maare gaye hatyare" and "Saatven din mili kamyabi". (Killers were Killed, Success on Seventh Day)


This once again clearly links the suspects with the bomb blasts in Delhi. Without anything proved as yet.


Significantly, in a separate single column story alongside the lead, it says that Atif was recognised by his missing tooth. The police had previously been told by a balloon seller child, who claimed to have seen the bombers of the September 13 blasts in Connaught Place, that one of them had a tooth missing. Amar Ujala unfortunately mentions the real name of the child, despite severe criticisms and many papers belatedly abstaining from naming the child. The television interviews of the child had put him at risk and he  had to be removed to a safe house by the police.


The paper, in another story on the front page, headlined "Halka darwaza khula aur chalne lagi goliyan." (The Door Opened Slightly and Bullets began to Fly) makes some very interesting points. It claims that the police had not gone prepared for an encounter. It says that there were lack of inputs and Intelligence Agencies can be held responsible for this as they had not warned the police that these boys living in Batla House could have weapons. It is because of want of inputs that Sharma did not wear a bullet proof jacket, claims this story.


Amar Ujala¿s reporting seems to be highly dramatised. For instance, a story without mentioning any source says "tabadtod goliyon ki awaz se goonj utha Batla House". It says in a dramatic way that "The whole area began to tremble at the sound of firing. People shut shops and doors of houses were closed. Silence spread in all four corners. The only sound that could be heard was that of gunshots. In a short while the police surrounded the area." The report sounds as if the reporter experienced the whole thing.


Incidentally, this description also contradicts the lead story that the area had first been surrounded or cordoned off!


It has a box item on the front page that says people thought gunshots were being fired in the mosque and were agitated because of that. It also says that namaz was offered in the shadow of ¿guns¿!


Jansatta, like other dailies, also uses the police as its only source in its lead story on September 20, treating the police version as the truth. Its Anchor piece opens with the statement that even if Abdul Subhan alias Taukir¿s mother may claim that he is innocent ¿the truth is that Taukir got involved in anti-national activities eight years back¿! This truth is then attributed to the police.


Significantly a box item, embedded in the anchor piece in Jansatta, reports, quoting police sources, that they had orders to finish the operation before the namaaz on Friday. It says that the police had mounted the operation in a "well planned way," and killed two terrorists of Indian Mujahideen in less than an hour.


There is a growing controversy surrounding the police raid, the alleged encounter, the cordoning off of the area, the number of alleged terrorists in the house, etc. These issues, therefore, need to be examined closely. To place the reporting in its context we also decided to visit Batla House and talk to the residents about their experiences on that day and their views about the reporting in the media.




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