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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Media plays plaintiff, judge, jury and executioner

By Swapan Dasgupta

Next to playing God, contemporary journalism is built on the principles of infallibility and public gullibility. Journalists and pompous editors are disinclined to admit that, being humans, they too can make mistakes and commit errors of judgment. More crucially, a misplaced sense of self-esteem has proved inimical to a sense of contrition. Like love, journalism usually means never having to say you are sorry.

Of course, honest mistakes can and do happen. Since information is subject to human interventions and interpretation, the scope for being misled by 'sources' loath to see Yudhisthir as a role model, is enormous. This may explain why old-fashioned practitioners of the trade strove to highlight the important distinction between verified reality and unsubstantiated claims or allegations. Both have a place in reportage but only when it is clear which is which.

One of the casualties of the tabloid culture and popular TV is that scepticism (I'd even say cynicism) has been replaced by certitude. Like the old Bollywood potboilers, the media seems to be driven by a macabre desire to divide humankind into the good and the bad—with the media, naturally, on the side of their chosen good. This undaunted sense of partisanship (depending on political preferences, nationality and commerce) is compounded by some robust demonology that transforms the 'bad' into both the 'ugly' and the 'evil'.

In a made-in-media society, this misplaced self-righteousness can have a hideously distorting effect on public discourse. Journalists are naturally dependant on non-attributable 'sources' for both insider information and perspectives. The problem, however, begins when the 'sources' start taking over the finished product. This seems to be happening in India with alarming frequency, especially now that the 'sources' have got it into their heads that they are not going to be held accountable for anything they dish out to news-hungry journalists in a fiercely competitive environment. The unending quest for the 'exclusive' has turned a large section of the media into stenographers. It has become captives to official dictation.

In the past 48 hours, India has witnessed a fierce trial by media targeting the favourite ogre of the liberal consensus: the Government of Gujarat. The CBI has charged Amit Shah, one of Chief Minister Narendra Modi's closest political associates, of a direct hand in the 'encounter deaths' of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauserbi and his associate Tulsiram Prajapati. It has alleged that Shah, who was Minister of state for Home till his resignation on Saturday, conspired to kill Sohrabuddin, not because he was a suspected terrorist intent on killing Modi—the police in Madhya Pradesh had recovered some 300 AK47s from his home—but because he was running a protection and extortion racket with his favourite police officers. It has been suggested that Shah targeted Sohrabuddin at the behest of some harassed marble traders of Rajasthan. Prajapati and Kauserbi were on the other hand killed because they knew too much.

These are grave charges, particularly when levelled against a senior political functionary. It is almost akin to Home Minister P. Chidambaram or his Andhra Pradesh counterpart being formally charged with organising an 'encounter' killing of the CPI(Maoist) politburo member Azad and 'journalist' Pandey. If these charges are upheld by the courts they would undeniably constitute a damning indictment of the state government.

For the moment, however, the CBI's voluminous chargesheet is at the level of accusations. Shah hasn't yet presented his defence, and nor has the investigation been endorsed by the Supreme Court which is monitoring the case. On the contrary, the BJP has charged the CBI of being a compliant arm of the Congress.

Modi's public proclamation of Shah's innocence and the BJP's decision to throw its political weight rests on the belief that Shah has been targeted on flimsy grounds, perhaps as a prelude to a full-scale legal assault on Modi.

The BJP leaders who have examined the evidence say that the case against Shah is based on three substantive points. First, it is claimed that Shah was in constant telephonic contact with D.G. Vanzara, the police officer charged with the 'encounter' killings. However, there is nothing in the records to indicate that on the days Sohrabuddin and Prajapati were killed, Shah spoke to either Vanzara or the other policemen charged with the killings.

Secondly, the CBI has relied on the testimony of Raman Patel and Dasrath Patel, two 'history-sheeters' who claimed that they met Shah to get cases against them under the Gujarat act against anti-socials removed. In that meeting, Shah is apparently said to have told these complete strangers that Sohrabuddin had to be eliminated for political reasons.

The BJP claims that there are no cases under the anti-social behaviour law against the two Patels and neither is there any record of any meeting of Shah with them. Moreover, as is well known in Gujarat, Shah is extremely taciturn and not given to boasting.

Finally, the CBI has relied on the testimony of a jailed policeman who claims that a phone call Vanjara received (said to be on the day Kauserbi disappeared) was "presumably" from Shah. There are apparently no records to substantiate the claim.

The weight of the evidence against Shah will be assessed by the trial court. What is clear is that the CBI charges don't amount to an open and shut case which can be decided by a media combing the roles of prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. There have been enough instances of tall claims made by authorities being effortlessly punctured in courts. However, since the legal process is lengthy, the mismatch between reality and claim rarely get reported. Media certitude is frequently shown to be baseless but who remembers what was said or printed three years ago?

This may be why it is rewarding to play stenographer to those who are politically on top today. Tomorrow's flip-flop is another day.

Sunday Pioneer, July 25, 2010








Govind Raj said...

This is nothing but Political vendetta by the Congress. The English media is almost entirely Anti-BJP in nature. So we can't expect anything better. I am not surprised.

Anonymous said...

Overall I agree with your views regarding the current media.

However, the same media went after Shashi Tharoor and he had to resign although there was no court verdict against him.

It is too simplistic to say that the media is hand in glove with the congress. Moreover, it was the supreme court who handed over the investigation to CBI.

Everyone knows CBI is not an independent organization (BJP is as guilty as congress in this count), and the media can be corrupt. But that does not make Amit Shah innocent (or guilty).

Finally, the BJP leaders are supporting Shibu Soren (a person convicted of murder) and Amit Shah (accused of murder). Doesn't this give a wrong signal to middle class voters outside Gujrat?

Anonymous said...

CBI is not that autonomous as is presumed. Just as Police act & dance to the tune of the party in power.

How many recall one Jagannathan , a mechanic (fitter) in a ship , who was SO viciously pounced upon , tortured , asphyxiated & bludgeoned to death by fellow muslims as soon as the ship left for the high seas towards Persian Gulf from Mumbai? All because they wanted to vent out their rage over some cartoons. And what better target than a meek Hindu ??

Why did not that agitate our law & order upholders ?

As one commenter observes in a tamil newspaper , today anything allegedly happening to a single unknown nuslim in Palestine unleashes violently fatal reactions in Parangipettai & Palakkad among Indian muslims.

All meekly abetted by vested interests within India.

M. Patil said...

Geez Swapan,

I told you so, these media wallas have neither ethics nor morality, they just know which side of the bread is buttered.

Indian media is part of the dirty tricks department of Congress. It is just than more people are becomming aware of it.

Remember Kanchi Shankaracharya case?

M. Patil said...

meanwhile, CBI gave clean chit to Jagdish Tytler. Go figure.

Jay Kumar said...

Media after all glorified a terrorist and brought out martyr out of him.

Why media should not be called anti-national.?

I think its right time that BJP must go to people by submitting resignation of all MLA's then see the reaction of media and congress. This will help BJP to reduce congress to ash in Gujarat.

Swapanji just convey our young Hindus words to your fiends in media that middle class, educated peoples mind is swinging towards Hindutva, so there is is no way next govt formed will be secular govt, but in fact hindutva govt. Its enough that media played with our sentiments we are allowing them to play till 2014 but not after 2014.

Anonymous said...

Recently in Lalit Modi controversy a national newspaper(in whom you write columns sometimes) made wild accusations against him, Underworld, mafia, crime as exclusive report. After some time all the accusations fell flat. There was no truth in the allegations, but the newspaper just ignored its own blatant lies.

Anonymous said...

Anon @8:05 ,

There is something called probity. Alas , that is of no consequence to you based on your uncalled for defense of Shashi Tharoor.

Had you read Swapan Dasgupta's perspicacious article on S.Tharoor you would not have written what you have written.

Finally , today in India , who is willing to purchase how many criminals with dubious credentials determines the fate of the Nation.

What about Raja of Spectrum ? If people who vote for congress are THAT unctuous , ought not to vote for congress party either.

Why do Indians adamantinely continue to refer to Supreme Court of India in such breathtaking tone ?

What is SO SUPREME about that institution which for the right price does not hesitate to question the VERY EXISTENCE of Sri Raam only to recant with poor grace now & then:-((

Suseel said...

I see this as a first step in Modi's transition to the center. If somehow, Amit comes out of this whole episode unscathed, he will be next in line for becoming Gujarat's CM when Modi vacates to move to the center.

Anonymous said...

this expose of american self-proclaimed 'liberal media' comes at the right time.

Skeptic said...

Swapan, you said on NDTV that Mani Shankar Aiyer has always referred to you as a hamster hindu or was it hampsted hindu? I couldn't quite get that, could you please clarify? Other than that, I found the exchange brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Honest to God , the word hindutva makes me panic stricken Jay Kumar.

Being a hindu myself seen how "holy" majority of hindus are. What is the point in dwelling on the subject anymore ?

Pradeep said...

Amit Shah episode is the direct outcome of BJP's Loksabha poll debacle, Advaniji has himself to blame as he stood like a mute spectator when the so called genext leaders of the party had hallowed it by expelling leaders with mass appeal, working hard to end the political careers of their colleagues, indulging in elitist politics for 5 years. they had done nothing to improve the Party image among masses who elect the govts.
many other BJP leaders will face persicution in the hands of Congress and Media because a few leaders at centre let down the party.

Pradeep said...

What stops BJP from demanding an SIT probe into Sikh massacre, on case related defreezing Quatrochi's london Bank accounts.
Karnataka Congress has exposed itself that they siphoned of Flood relief fund of the Public, why no one files disqualification of Congress leaders from Assembly on this basis.
why BJP does not file Fake encounter case against Andhra Police, home minister as Journalist Pandey was shot dead along with Azad?
Pandey was a resident of Uttarkhand.

Anonymous said...

dada read this comments