For Its Reporting Of
Jamia Nagar Encounter
By S.K. Pande
Speakers at a meet organised by the Delhi Union of Journalists to release its interim report on media's coverage of Jamia Nagar encounter were unanimous in their opinion that the credibility of the media has touched an all-time low and the challenge before the media is how to regain this.
DUJ Ethics Council’s interim report on “Delhi Blasts: A Look At Media Coverage” was released by veteran journalist Kuldip Nayyar on October 3, 2008. The report scathingly brings out lapses in the coverage of the recent encounter at Batla House, Jamia Nagar in Delhi by both the electornic and print media.
CPI(M) MP Hannan Mollah in his remarks regretted that due to unverified, breathless reporting by the media -- without critically trying to find out actual facts -- the whole Muslim community was being projected as terrorists. This has created a fear psychosis among the community and is leading to a feeling of frustration. He called for restrained reporting and cautioned against speculation.
Kuldip Nayyar said that while to some extent government pressure on the media has lessened, particularly after the experience of Emergency, the pressure of financiers, political parties and others has increased. This has affected the media’s credibility adversely. “Let us make this Report a starting point for retrieving our values”, he said.
Recalling that during the Gujarat carnage, while the Gujarati language press was found wanting in objective reporting of the incidents, the English press somewhat redeemed the situation by fair reporting and won the confidence of the community most affected. He demanded that the National Humans Rights Commission, which has taken suo moto cognizance of the Jamia Nagar encounter should hold open sittings to ensure transparency.
Professor Obaid Siddiqui of A J Kidwai Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia University, said that the media coverage of the encounter has given rise to the feeling among Muslims that they are being targeted and projected as anti-nationals contrary to the fact that majority of the Muslims are nationalists and organisations like SIMI and Indian Mujahideen have a very negligible following.
Among others who participated in the discussion were veteran journalists Ajoy Bose, Anjali Deshpande, Sujata Madhok and Amit Prakash Singh. The discussion was moderated by DUJ president S K Pande who said while increase in communalisation was bad enough, communalisation and sensationalisation is a cause of much concern. In the present situation where terrorism was rearing its ugly head, it was time that the media itself introspects its own role and strive to be part of a solution rather than a problem.
The DUJ report strives to be a beginning of a critique of media reporting of the Batla house police operation, Pande added. It was a modest beginning and just an interim report. Associated with the report were Anjali Deshpande, Sujata Madhok, Amit Prakash Singh, Naresh Nadeem, Mohd Shamim, Dinesh Chandra, L H Naqvi and Sreekumar. There are many others who wanted to remain anonymous and more responses are coming, he informed.
The foreword of the report made it clear that the Delhi Union of Journalists and its Ethics Council are concerned at the falling standards of reporting as evident in the manner in which the police operation at Balta House on September 19, 2008 was reported by various newspapers and TV channels in the capital. The reporting in about a dozen papers, some magazines and the Urdu press was analysed in the report.
“We wish to underline that accuracy in reporting facts is the first responsibility of the media. Where facts are disputed, the discrepancies should be pointed out and the sources questioned. Presenting several versions of incidents and using multiple sources of information is an inalienable part of credible reporting.
“We also emphasise that uncovering the truth may not always be the job of the media. The media is not equipped to investigate and uncover the truth in severely complicated cases like the incident being examined in the report. But presenting different facets of events as they emerge is part of the professional responsibility of the media.
“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 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 Quresh’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.”, stated the report.
CALL FOR MEDIA COMMISSION
The postscript calls for a Media commission and a Media council for the entire media to replace the toothless Press Council. It notes that successive governments have failed to respond to countrywide appeals to constitute a Media Commission to go into the state of affairs in both the print and electronic media in the country after globalisation. The setting up of more and more news channels and growth of old and new newspapers have brought about big changes in the state of the country’s information industry. The aspirations, expectations and demands of the people, too, have grown tremendously with the strengthening of the roots of democracy in the country and their awakening of the right to information. We must recall that the country’s politics, economy and media since 1982, when the second Press Commission submitted its report, have changed as has the political structure. Even the All India Confederation of Newspapers and News Agencies has supported this stand.
The time has come for the government to appreciate the gravity and urgency of the matter and set up at the earliest a fully empowered Media Commission to go through the entire gamut of the information industry. A good beginning can be made by having a Media council through extension of the Press Council by making it more broad-based and also to have equal representation for the electronic media and a broadcast media to make it in tune with the time.
The report concludes by saying that the Jamia Nagar episode is a sad reminder of the diminishing credibility of the media. Instead of playing the role of the ‘watch dog’ of society, the media seems to be getting increasingly lazy and dependent on police handouts. The main job of the media is to question and not accept whatever is being served on a platter. Because of this increasing laziness of the print media and increasing ‘greed’ for sensationalism on the part of the visual media, news tends to be presented to the public without proper investigation which is the most important job of the media. Investigation does not mean that every media person has to become an ‘investigative journalist’. That is not the job of the daily reporter, nor is it expected from them. But what is expected is that the reporter would try to give the different sides of the incident after questioning as many eyewitnesses as possible.
In most of the papers the boys killed were declared terrorists much before any proof could be established against them. Each TV channel was competing with the other to sensationalise the raid as much as possible, perhaps with an eye firmly on the TRP ratings.
Fortunately, there are still people in the media who caution their colleagues against such gullibility and try to present more reliable reports. Some of the magazines came in for praise in the report. Sevanti Ninan was quoted for her analysis in reviewing media’s role in Dainik Hindustan (September 28, 2008), in which she points out the slanted reporting against Muslims. She notes that when there are reports flowing out of Orissa and Karnataka about the activities of the Bajrang Dal we never get to know anything about the people involved in it. “Are their pictures, addresses, life stories plastered in all the newspapers and on TV channels? Why is their profiling not done?”
The Outlook makes an interesting point when it states quoting a police officer “At an early stage of the investigation, when the police are just exploring leads, such detailed press conferences are irresponsible. It only creates panic and reinforces cultural stereotypes.”
From The Week Antara Dev Sen wrote “Terrorism is bad enough, worse is the eerie suspicion that we may never know what really happened, that instead of addressing terrorism we are pursuing cosmetic security while the real culprits plot the next attack.” She laments that “the days of skeptical caution of not accepting a one-source story, are numbered. What started as lazy journalism, as reporters warmed to PR handouts, is now news etiquette.”
Where is the press heading when we expose photographically a kid balloon seller as witness or we allow photographs of men to appear in ‘Arab’ scarves? Too many national papers had the same pictures, supplied by whom it is not to difficult to fathom. Small mercies that there are some appeals for restraint!
The Press Council is slated to meet on October 13, 2008. The National Integration Council meets the same day. One hopes these issues will figure in their confabulations and necessary restraint to the erring parties will be advised. One also hopes that the National Human Rights’ Commission has more open sittings. Why is the Children’s Commission silent on the matter?
(S.K. Pande is Chief of Bureau, India News Network and President, Delhi Union of Journalists)