Reporting encounters

BY KALPANA SHARMA| IN Opinion | 08/09/2009
The inconsistencies in the various accounts put out in the press were also glaring. Yet, no one followed up.
There are several reasons why questioning and investigation does not take place in the media after an encounter, says KALPANA SHARMA.

Second Take

Kalpana Sharma



In the light of the report by Magistrate S. P. Tamang investigating the "encounter" killing of four suspected terrorists, including a woman, on June 15, 2004 in Ahmedabad, the media has to pause and think again how it reports such incidents.


On June 15, 2004, the Ahmedabad police, led by DIG D. G. Vanzara (who has been suspended and arrested on the charge of another fake encounter, that of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kausar Bi in the same year), claimed that they had chased four "terrorists" belonging to the Lashkar-e-Toiba who had planned to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.  In the ensuing encounter, at 4.30 a.m. on a deserted road, all four – three men and a woman – were shot down by the police team.


The media came into the picture hours later and photographs of the four bodies laid out on the road were printed in most newspapers.  Some Gujarati newspapers had a picture of the woman, 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan from Mumbra in Thane district, slumped in the front passenger seat. It appeared she had been shot at close range (something the inquiry has now established).


Although the media reported Ishrat’s family’s denials that she had anything to do with terrorists, there was little by way of further media investigation. Instead, various versions of the killing were put out by intelligence agencies and Gujarat police and dutifully printed in newspapers.  Within a short time, as is the case with most such incidents, the matter died down.  As a result of this case, Ishrat’s family were compelled to move out of their home in Mumbra temporarily as they found it difficult to handle the "terror" label pinned on them.  In fact, all of Mumbra was referred to as a "hotbed" of terrorists by media after this incident. (Read my piece on this incident on my blog:


Ishrat’s mother persisted in the belief that her daughter’s name had to be cleared.  It is this persistence that led to the Gujarat High Court appointing a Special Investigation Team to look into the killing.  Even before the SIT could investigate the case, the findings of the magisterial inquiry have exposed the diabolical actions of a section of the Gujarat police.  The inquiry has concluded that this was done by a group of 21 police officials so that they could get promotions.  This report will now be placed before the Gujarat High Court.


These findings from the magisterial inquiry should compel us in the media to ask ourselves some tough questions.  When the incident took place in 2004, did the media fail to follow up? Ishrat did not fit the profile of a "terrorist".  Everyone who knew her in Khalsa College, where she studied, said she was cheerful and hard working.  She supported her widowed mother by giving tuitions.  She was the eldest of seven brothers and sisters.  What was she doing with three men who the police suspect were terrorists?  Surely that was a story worth investigating. 


The inconsistencies in the various accounts put out in the press were also glaring.  Yet, no one followed up.  Even after D. G. Vanzara was implicated in the Sohrabuddin case, the media failed to question this earlier encounter and consider that perhaps this too was fake.


There are several reasons why such questioning and investigation does not take place in the media.  One, most journalists covering crime, or terror, rely heavily on the police and intelligence agencies for information. Most media houses will not invest enough in news gathering to allow journalists to follow up to get independent verification of the official version of such stories. As a result, only the official version appears.


The problem is compounded because the official version is reported without the slightest tinge of scepticism or questioning.  Nor is an effort made to balance it with other information from other sources. For instance, if the during the "encounter" in Ahmedabad, the "terrorists" had shot back with an AK-56 as claimed by the police, should not the journalists have asked the police to show them evidence of where these shots had landed?  Was there no impact on the foliage around the spot where the shooting took place?  Had forensics established that the bullet marks on the police vehicle were from this gun? What about the post-mortem report of the four killed?  Did journalists demand information on these as they do in so many other cases? 


The magisterial inquiry has revealed that the three men had actually been shot before the so-called "encounter" and Ishrat was shot at later, placed on the front seat of the car with her college identity card around her neck. That is an astounding and diabolical revelation on any account.  Surely the photograph of Ishrat that appeared in at least one paper ought to have resulted in some tough questions being asked of the police.


According to Gopinath Pillai, the 72-year-old father of Pranesh Pillai alias Javed Gulam Sheikh, who was allegedly driving the car (although he could not have been if he had already been killed before the "encounter"), journalists who were taken to the spot after the encounter told Mr. Pillai that "the pistol found at the spot was rusted and looked like it had not been used in a long time," (as reported in Mumbai Mirror, Sept 8, 2009).  If this is so, why did these journalists not investigate further?  Or did they but were discouraged by their publications from following these leads?


Reporting encounters requires on the part of us journalists the same degree of scepticism we would apply to any other story.  There is an "official" version but there is often another.  It is our job to at least try and dig out the other.  In the meantime, should we not at least qualify everything that we report by stating that this is the police version?  Should we not make an effort to talk to people linked with those killed, give them the space and time to give their stories, see if this gives us any leads?


The recent killing (July 23) of Chongkham Sanjit in Imphal in a daylight "encounter" came to light because a photographer recorded the incident and Tehelka, a magazine that has made investigative reporting its business, was willing to run with the story.  If this photographer had given his pictures to a mainstream paper in the "mainland", would they have run it?  I very much doubt it.  There seems to be an unwritten code that we should handle all cases of "terror" with kid gloves and question the official version only if there is enough hard evidence. 


In an interview to Naresh Fernandes in Time Out, Mumbai (July 27-August 9, 2007), the veteran journalist John Pilger made a comment that I think is pertinent in this present context.  He said, "I am doing merely what ought to be the job of a journalist, and often isn’t, which is not to echo authority but to question ‘perceived wisdom’ and seek the truth at ground level not at the top.  Journalism is nothing if it is not about humanity.  It must never be the voice of power, of vested interests.  There is a quotation of the great Irish muckraker Claud Cockburn that is my favourite: ‘Never believe anything until it is officially denied’."




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