Should journalists apologise?

IN Opinion | 22/09/2010
Are reporters, who fall for police and IB plants and happily give chapter and verse on the lives of individuals suspected of terror links, bound to apologise if they are proved wrong?
Does anyone bother to find out what happens to those who are picked up, wonders KALPANA SHARMA. Pix: Iftikhar Gilani
Second Take
Kalpana Sharma
"Is the media becoming increasingly susceptible to police plants?" This is the question The Hoot has posted on this site. It will be interesting to know the results of the survey, particularly if any journalists covering the police take part in the survey.
Run these results alongside the letter of protest by Siddharth Vardarajan, National Bureau Chief of The Hindu, to the jury that gave the Indian News Broadcasting Award to Neeta Sharma of NDTV India. Vardarajan pointed out in his letter that Sharma was the reporter who wrote a false story in Hindustan Times in 2002 claiming that Iftikhar Gilani, Chief of Bureau of Kashmir Times in Delhi, had admitted in court that he was an ISI agent. The story, obviously a plant, appeared even as journalists were consolidating their support for Gilani. Because of this report, and others like this, Gilani ended up in jail for nine months where he was tortured and his family suffered terrible humiliation. Although the paper for which Sharma wrote did apologise to Gilani, the reporter did not. Vardarajan states in his letter, "I hope that even at this late stage, you as jury members can either find a way to withdraw this award or at least shame Neeta Sharma into acknowledging that the basic code of a good reporter involves respecting the truth and having the decency to say sorry when you make a grave mistake." 

For those interested in this particular case, it is also worth reading Gilani’s comment on Sharma getting the award and seeing his power point presentation of the media coverage during the time when he was charged and incarcerated. So are reporters, who fall for police and IB plants and happily give chapter and verse on the lives of individuals suspected of terror links, bound to apologise if they are proved wrong? I suspect if this became the norm, more than one prominent journalist would have to do this.
After every so-called terror attack, the police round up suspects and question them. Sometimes their identities are not revealed to the press and only people in the neighbourhood where these men live know that they have been picked up. At other times, publicity hungry police in some states, run to the media every time they have some incremental piece of information on a terror plot and reveal that they have caught the "mastermind", only to backtrack a few weeks, months or even years later when another "mastermind" is caught. But has anyone bothered to find out what happens to the men who are picked up, questioned, possibly tortured and finally let off if they happen to be lucky enough to find a lawyer who will take up their case and prove their innocence or at least establish that the police does not have a case? Nine times out of ten, this does not happen. Iftikhar Gilani was based in Delhi, worked for a prominent Kashmiri newspaper and therefore got some help. But what of scores of others like him?
Take the curious case of the Mecca Masjid blast on May 18, 2007 in Hyderabad. Initially the police said they were certain it was the work of the Harkat-ul-Jihadi Islami (HuJI). Around 60 young Muslims were arrested on suspicion, one of their ostensible crimes being viewing DVDs depicting the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and scenes from the Gujarat riots. Thanks to the intervention of a human rights group and their lawyer, the men were released and the police admitted it did not have any evidence against them. Meantime, three years after the blast, with no leads, the possibility of the involvement of Hindutva groups like the ones held responsible for the Malegaon blasts is now being investigated.
But what about those 60 men who were wrongly implicated? Who will compensate for their loss of reputation at being labeled terrorist? Will the journalists and the newspapers that perpetuated this theory apologise?
The most recent such case was that of Samad Bhatkal. On May 25 this year, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) picked him up from Mangalore airport when he returned from Dubai. He was called "suspected terrorist" in the early reports and a "co-conspirator" in the Mumbai terror attack. He was also written of as a "prize catch" in the Pune blast case of February this year. Yet when the police produced him in court to get custody, only an arms seizure case of 2009 was mentioned in the remand application in which they claimed Bhatkal was involved in supplying arms to three persons in South Mumbai in 2009. Bhatkal got bail on June 15 and was finally released three weeks later when the police admitted that they had no evidence to hold him any longer.
We know Gilani’s story because he is our colleague, a fellow journalist, and based in the national capital. And he has written a book, "My days in prison" that should be made compulsory reading for budding journalists so that they understand how even in a democracy laws like the Official Secrets Act can be misused and how being in the media cannot protect you. If Gilani’s is the story of a man with some influence, what about those without, who are picked up for "routine" questioning? How many more Samad Bhatkal’s are there in each of our cities and do we in the media bother about them, follow up on their stories when the police drops these cases without acknowledging that they made a mistake?
And now we have the Jama Masjid shooting and once again, even as the police is taking care to say they do not know, "sources" in the police and intelligence are already telling journalists that this is a "terror" attack and is the "handiwork" of the Indian Mujahideen (IM). "The modus operandi in the firing, which left two Taiwanese tourists injured, carries the signature of Indian Mujahideen, home ministry sources said," reported DNA on September 19. Similar reports have appeared elsewhere including an edit in The Hindu that states, "Police believe the attack was most likely carried out by one of the Lashkar-e-Taiba-linked cells that are collectively referred to as the Indian Mujahideen".
The alleged email sent by the IM is already being accepted as genuine. Curiously, even though nowhere in the mail is there a claim that the IM carried out the shootout, many in the media seem to have jumped to that conclusion. Over the next days the drama will unfold with "highly placed sources" placing different versions of what happened, who was responsible, whether the explosion in the car was really a crude bomb etc. As in previous cases, "suspects" will be rounded up for questioning and perhaps soon a "mastermind" will be found.
The police face a difficult task cracking such cases. No one doubts that. But the question we in the media have to continue asking is how we deal with the piecemeal information we are fed? For instance, should we publish the mugshots of suspects rounded up by the police • photographs that the police provide • even though there is now a considerable record of the number of times the police have been wrong in such cases? Don’t these individuals also have the right to protect their privacy? And when we are proved wrong, should we not acknowledge the mistake and issue a correction, if not an apology? 
There are far too many uncomfortable questions before us in the media and we cannot overlook them. Even if this cannot form the subject of a general debate, surely within our own newsrooms the issue can be discussed and some kind of code formulated for such reportage.

The credibility of the media has already touched rock bottom with the "paid news" phenomenon. Add to that the "plant news" aspect and you wonder why readers should believe anything that appears in the media.

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