The trouble with relying on police sources

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Media Practice | 24/09/2008
These days, two kinds of sensational events dominate our media: bomb blasts and large scale mob violence. But the difference in the way the media has handled them is glaring.
Laziness and deadline pressure are at least partly responsible for the communal stereotypes perpetrated by the press says JYOTI PUNWANI.

What if Abdus Subhan Qureishi, now known as `Tauqeer¿, turns out to be not India¿s `Osama¿, as he is being labeled, but just another young fanatic who left home and job to pursue religion, and is now too scared to come back?


Does this possibility sound bizarre? Why? Because the ATS can¿t be wrong? After the July 11, 06 blasts, three of the many `masterminds¿ and `key links¿ arrested by the ATS soon after the blasts – Mumtaz Choudhury from Navi Mumbai, Khalid Ahmed from Madhubani and Akhmal Hashmi from Srinagar -  were discharged by it within three months for  lack of evidence.  Their arrests had been announced by the ATS as `major breakthroughs¿. The media had gone ballistic  the same way they are doing now over the `techie bombers¿ allegedly responsible for all the recent blasts.


Like we¿ve forgotten these and other  `desh drohis¿ who had dominated the media just two years back,  `Tauqeer¿ and the other `new faces of jehad¿  may also be forgotten by us as some other sensational event takes over.  Maybe their families should just have patience and bear with the blinding  spotlight till then. (A mail from Azamgarh informs us that Atif Ameen¿s father died three days after his son was killed in the Delhi `encounter¿ that is still creating headlines.)  After all, sensationalism is an intrinsic part of the media. And Muslims aren¿t its only targets. Celebrities and crime, for example, make for fantastic copy and visuals.  Salman Khan, Maria Susairaj, Manu Sharma, Sanjeev Nanda –the list of those who complain of being  `targeted¿  is endless.


Old-timers will remember the sensational incident in which theatre giant B V Karanth allegedly set on fire actress Vibha Mishra in Bhopal. The police allowed a few reporters into the room where Karanth was about to confess – of course without his knowledge. His confession was then flashed in the newspapers. The entire theatre world accused the press of "trial by media¿, of being used by the police, of insensitivity… More recently, the Shivani Bhatnagar killing made headlines, with the wife of the accused police officer R K Sharma calling a media   conference to refute the `confession¿ the police claimed he had made,  and daring  the media to question BJP leader Pramod Mahajan on his role in the murder. As she lashed out, flashbulbs focused on  Sharma¿s two teenaged daughters, waiting to meet their father in custody.


Sensationalism –not animus against Muslim Personal Law, as Urdu journalists allege - also dictated the continuous coverage received by the Imrana case. Rape within the family, an outrageous fatwa by mullahs (who are, let¿s admit, the media¿s favourite whipping boys), a woman who fights back – what more do you need for a Page One story? It may be recalled that the Roop KAnwar sati episode also dominated the front pages for weeks, with editorials and feature pages condemning the Hindu leaders who defended the burning alive of an 18-year-old bride, as shrilly as they had the maulvis who declared Imrana haraam for her husband after her father-in-law raped her.


These days, two kinds of sensational events  dominate our media: bomb blasts  and large scale mob violence. But the difference in the way the media has handled them is glaring. While the media relays the smallest detail about the lives of India¿s alleged `new  terror techies¿- down to their Orkut posts, it is deafeningly silent about details of those who have been continuously burning churches and attacking Christians in Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala. The irony is that the church-burners revel in brandishing their weapons in front of the camera, while the alleged Muslim bombers operate in secrecy.


The media has chosen instead to focus  on the New Life evangelists –the alleged provocation for the attacks on Karnataka¿s churches. While it is important to know what provokes violence, we don¿t find a similar scrutiny of VHP leader Swami Laxmananand Saraswati¿s record, that might help understand what may have led to his killing.


One obvious reason for this skewed emphasis is that the police, who tell the media everything about alleged Muslim terrorists, don¿t do the same about violent Hindu extremists - not even about their leaders.  Of course the police isn¿t one homogenous entity, but across the country, their behavior is disturbingly similar on this count.


Compare the manner in which the ATS in Mumbai publicly profiled the Muslims picked up for the July 11, 2006 train blasts, and its silence on the RSS members arrested in the Nanded blasts in 2006, who it has also accused of perpetrating blasts outside mosques in Maharashtra since 2003.  Again consider this:  the day after any bomb blast, the police blame SIMI, LeT, HuJI… but in the charge-sheet filed in the Thane blasts case this year, the ATS has not even mentioned the organization to which the accused belonged, the Sanatan Sanstha, run by the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti.


If the media continues to rely primarily on the police in its bomb blasts reportage, Azamgarh will gain notoriety, but Nanded, Kanpur and Tenkasi will get no special attention. (Thanks to the media, what Azamgarh now symbolizes needs no explanation.  Nanded, Kanpur and Tenkasi are all places where RSS members were arrested for making and/or planting bombs.) Time and again, the police version of communal violence in Mumbai/Maliana/Bhagalpur/Punjab/ Kashmir has been proved wrong. The police force of these places has been indicted by sitting and retired judges  for communal conduct. Why then does the media choose to treat whatever the police say as gospel truth? Is it just laziness, and the race for `breaking news¿? How much easier –and more importantly, quicker - it is to get the story from the police than actually go to the place and get as comprehensive a picture as possible.


Laziness and deadline pressure are at least partly responsible for the communal stereotypes perpetrated by the press. Urdu journalists allege that only two kinds of Muslim voices, always of the same persons, get heard in the English press:  liberal and conservative. True, the ambivalent  views of the average Muslim rarely make it to the newspapers because s/he isn¿t easily available for  `quotes¿  on the phone! Also, it¿s mostly the liberal Muslim who writes in English. Who will bother to translate? Similarly, if pictures of only burqah-clad and topi-wearing Muslims are published, it¿s often because these are immediately identifiable as Muslims and their pictures are always available in newspaper libraries. Actually sending a photographer to the nearest college or call centre, computer repair office or timber mart – places where Muslims abound – is just too much trouble.


Besides, many of the Muslims working there may not fit the popular image of a Muslim, and that instant identification appears to be very important for the media. So be it Imrana or education, Eid or elections, you have the same black burqah, beard and rows of bent namazees. Even when the majority of signatories at a street corner campaign in Mumbai on the Srikrishna Commission Report were non-Muslims, the cameraman  chose to click the only burqah-clad signatory, making what was as much a human rights issue into a purely Muslim issue.


But what explains the headlines and use of language? It is revealing that even after it was clear that Hindu terrorists were responsible for the Thane blasts, no newspaper used the word `terrorist¿ or even `extremist¿ in the headlines to describe them; the most they said was `Hindu radicals¿.  What makes English journalists use terms of endearment for the likes of rabble rousers such as Bal Thackeray and Uma Bharti?  When does the Babri Masjid become a `disputed structure¿ and an economic blockade of the Kashmir Valley imposed in the glare of cameras, an `alleged blockade¿? And what makes them devote more space to the violent protests against the mutilation and murder of a Dalit teenager and her family in Khairlanji, than to the barbaric act itself?


Recent reports revealed that  `reserved category¿ students have fared better than many general category (hence automatically `meritorious¿) students in the IIT entrance exam; that while reserved students who score zero in one subject will now get in (thanks to further lowering of  cut-off marks for them) , many general students scoring zero have already got in. Guess what the headlines were: not the discovery of the truly meritorious performance of the SCs/STs/OBCs, but the lowering of the cut-off into these `hallowed¿¿ institutes.


So is there truth in the allegations of communal bias that were being made long before the `Indian Mujaheedin¿s emails made them into headlines? (They should have added caste bias.) Yet, can we ignore the fact that this is the same media that exposed the RSS¿ violence in Gujarat, and that shows its revulsion whenever Hindutva goons act as violent censors? In Gujarat 2002, even the Hindi channels went all out against the massacre of Muslims.


Nor is the Urdu press free of communal bias and actual rabble rousing. The most recent example was the regret expressed by leading Urdu dailies that Taslima Nasreen wasn¿t attacked more brutally, when her meeting was disrupted in Hyderabad. If the English press dutifully publishes the police version of every bomb blast – that Muslims are behind it , the Urdu press is at the other extreme. It attributes the blasts to anyone – RSS/security agencies/Naxalites/USA/Mossad – but Muslims. Not all Muslims agree; indeed, some were so disgusted by the Urdu press¿ refusal to acknowledge the possibility that Muslims could be responsible for the 2006 train blasts, that they switched to the `communal¿ English press.


However, the Urdu press can harm only its readers, which in itself has repercussions for everyone. Imagine the  harm done by the English media! Before asking Muslims to introspect, shouldn¿t the media do so?








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