Mobile cameras as game changer

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Opinion | 09/02/2013
When Indian Express printed links to YouTube videos of police action in Dhule, it broke new ground for the media.
JYOTI PUNWANI says irrefutable evidence like this will be a gamechanger.


Jyoti  Punwani


Move over print. The mobile camera is here. Shots captured on mobile cameras and uploaded on the Internet have done what reams of print could not. Two policemen have been suspended and six arrested after the Indian Express printed links to You Tube videos of policemen breaking and looting property belonging to Muslims on January 6, when communal violence erupted in Dhule, Maharashtra. These videos were shot on mobile phones by people from their homes. 

Getting the government to punish policemen for their misconduct during communal riots has proven to be an impossibility. The police’s standard excuse for all their actions has been that they acted to protect the property and lives of citizens and themselves from uncontrollable mobs. It has always been their word against the version of those they’ve lathicharged, arrested and fired upon, the families of the latter, and eyewitnesses in the neighbourhood, all of whom generally belong to the same community/class/caste. The latter’s version tends to be looked on with suspicion by the English press, which anyway has a tendency to accept the police version of violent incidents anywhere. Notable exceptions to this norm have occurred when the press itself is an eyewitness to the police action, or when the police have acted in a blatantly one-sided manner, going against all norms, as in Maliana, Meerut, in 1987. Add to this the pattern of Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, labour, and the poor in general, being the most frequent victims of police action, whenever they have resisted or come out on the streets to oppose the State. The resentment among these groups against the English press then becomes understandable. Muslims though, do concede that by and large, the English press has been supportive whenever they’ve been under attack.

However, even sympathetic reports that contradict the police version can be far away from the truth, as the Srikrishna Commission Report of Inquiry into the Mumbai ’92-93 riots proved. The Mumbai edition of The Times of India’s reportage of the riots earned it the abuse (or compliment, as its then resident editor Darryl D’Monte said in a recent talk) ‘The Times of Pakistan’ from the RSS-BJP-Shiv Sena. Yet, even ToI failed to break the dominant myth of the riots – that Muslims outraged at the demolition of the Babri Masjid were the aggressors in both phases of the riots. This myth was only broken by the Commission’s findings, which criticised Mumbai’s police force as communal, and indicted 31 policemen for communal conduct, ranging from murder of innocent Muslims to participating in rioting along with Shiv Sainiks.

Bringing those 31 policemen to book has been a 15-year-old struggle which has yielded some good, but not the desired result – to see the policemen in the dock, facing trial. Special investigating teams set up the government on orders of the Supreme Court have refused to believe the victims, and exonerated the indicted policemen. So have the courts.

But Dhule has changed all that. With one click of the mobile phone, which every urban family has, and another click to access the internet, Dhule’s residents have ensured that everyone can witness the Dhule police in action.

Interestingly, initial reports in the press about the Dhule riots carried the police version about them having been attacked by acid bottles. Fact-finding teams of activists, as well as press reports, failed to bring any case of a seriously injured policeman to light. Stone-throwing on policemen did take place, said everyone. Should the stones have been met with bullets? All those who died had bullet injuries above the waist, flouting the norm that firing must be to injure, not kill. If the mob was at a higher plane than the police, such firing (above the waist) could have been possible, said the state DGP. But a YouTube video shows the police and a bunch of stone-throwers face to face, on the same plane. The police have their rifles aimed straight ahead. There is no getting away from the evidence.

When the Mumbai riots took place, there were no private TV news channels. The press and Doordarshan were the only media. But 10 years later, Gujarat 2002 took place, in the full glare of TV cameras. This columnist has always believed that it was unrelenting TV coverage by all channels that put an end to the Gujarat violence. No wonder Barkha Dutt became, at that time, one of the most hated TV reporters among RSS supporters in Gujarat.

But that TV coverage was also not enough to book Gujarat’s rioters or policemen. TV cameras captured the violence and looting on the main roads, with policemen standing by, not the many big massacres that took place which were not covered by TV.

More recently, mobile cameras were used to film the violence that broke out in Azad Maidan in Mumbai last year, after some Muslims turned on the police and media at a protest rally. As some boys set fire to police vans, others present there, also Muslims who had come for the rally, filmed them on their mobile phones. Many of these clips were published in the press; they were also uploaded on YouTube. These clips became crucial for the police to zero down on the real rioters. Of course, the Mumbai police being what it is, first locked up 23 boys who came back to the site later that night only to collect their bikes parked at Azad Maidan. Only after that did they trace those caught on camera. The first batch of 23 were charged with the same grievous offences that the latter were. And they were only released two months later on the orders of the High Court. Had the police let these 23 go, and restricted themselves to arresting only those in the videos, the cry of ‘victimisation of innocents’ would not have gained ground in the community, which, to begin with, had been ashamed of the meaningless attacks on the police and media.

If this trend of filming violence as it erupts and then uploading the videos on the Internet grows, as it is surely bound to, people can see for themselves what took place, making it tough for the police – and violent groups – to whitewash their acts. Indeed, such live recording is a handy (and cheap) tool for the police too, both to substantiate their claims and to go after the actual culprits in a riot. Already, the Dhule police have said that some video clips shot by journalists showed that they had indeed used teargas before resorting to firing, while Dhule’s Muslims refute that. The police can produce those videos in their defence before the Commission of Inquiry that has been announced to investigate the riots.

There’s one more aspect to this recording of evidence in Dhule. The YouTube videos were accessed by Indian Express reporter Zeeshan Shaikh (surprisingly, by him alone), and links to them were not only published in the paper, but the videos were also uploaded on the Indian Express website. The paper thus has included them as part of its coverage of the riots. Is this the first time such coverage by citizens has been included by a newspaper? This is quite different from carrying the victims’/eyewitnesses’ version. The value of videos showing clashes between the police and the people, uploaded on the internet by non-journalists, increases drastically when a newspaper includes them in its coverage. For on their own, citizens may record events, but what if the authorities refuse to take note of these recordings? It then becomes the task of the recorders, probably helped by human rights groups, to bring it to the notice of the authorities and the courts. Whereas once it becomes part of an established newspaper’s website, it becomes part of ‘news’ relayed by the media.

If the Indian Express’ act of uploading these videos on their website becomes a trend for all newspapers, victims of police high-handedness can hope that their own efforts, supported by the press, can bring to book policemen who flout the law. Ultimately, this will result in both the police and angry groups of people becoming more mindful of the way they behave.






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