The media coverage of the Jamia Nagar police operation at Batla House in New Delhi is a sad reminder of the diminishing credibility of the media, says this critique by the Delhi Union of Journalists. Besides the shocking confusion over the reported facts of the case, the media displayed implicit bias and uncalled for dramatisation on television. Excerpts from the DUJ report
The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) and its ethics council are concerned at the falling standards of reporting as evident in the manner in which the police operation at Batla House on September 19, 2008, was reported by various newspapers and TV channels in the capital.
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.
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 this report. But presenting different facets of events as they emerge is part of the professional responsibility of the media.
In this report we have analysed the reporting of The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu, and The Indian Express (Delhi editions of September 20 and 21, 2008). Among the Hindi newspapers we have examined Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, Dainik Hindustan, Jansatta, Punjab Kesari and Rashtriya Sahara; the Urdu newspaper we looked at is Rashtriya Sahara.
We wish to make it clear that we hold no brief for either the police or the suspects, two of whom were killed and several rounded up. We are not passing judgment on whether it was a planned encounter or a fake encounter or a police operation gone wrong. We do not know the truth. We are only examining the professional conduct of our co-professionals with a view to pointing out the casual manner in which serious issues have been handled right from the day of the serial bomb blasts in Delhi.
A research team of the DUJ decided to examine the way in which the print media reported the police operation on September 19, 2008, at L-18, Batla House, Jamia Nagar in Delhi in which two alleged terrorists and one inspector of the special cell of the Delhi police were killed.
Analysis of newspaper reports dated September 20, 2008
The facts first.
1 Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma of the special cell of the Delhi police killed.
2 Two young boys, Atif Amin and Mohammed Sajid, killed.
3 Mohammed Saif arrested.
The rest of the facts regarding the police operation at L-18, Batla House, Jamia Nagar, Delhi, on September 19, 2008, are uncertain. Although the incident took place in India’s capital, and all newspapers and TV channels used the same source -- the police -- even the basic facts are not in place. Every daily newspaper and television channel seems to have its own set of ‘facts’ and often these contradict each other. Accuracy seems to have been sacrificed in the rush to be first with the news and provide the more sensational coverage. Let us examine how the incident was reported in the Delhi editions of the dailies.
The time of the shootout
The Hindustan Times and Dainik Jagran have given the time as 11 am. The Indian Express, quoting a resident, says the first shot was fired around 9.45 am. The Times of India report does not mention any time. The Mail Today says it began at 11 am. The Hindi Hindustan report would have us believe that it all began at 10.30 am. Amar Ujala says firing began at around 10.45 am and lasted until 11 am.
The duration of the shootout
The Hindustan Times says the shootout lasted 15 minutes, whereas its Hindi publication, Dainik Hindustan, says it lasted 90 minutes. According to The Times of India, the entire encounter took 25 minutes. The Mail Today says the operation lasted 30 minutes. The Veer Arjun says the shootout lasted between 30 and 45 minutes. Rashtriya Sahara, Urdu, claims that the shooting lasted nearly two hours. Amar Ujala says the encounter lasted one hour and 15 minutes. Punjab Kesari claims the encounter lasted one hour.
Number of rounds fired
According to The Times of India, 25 rounds were fired by the police and eight by the ‘terrorists’. The Indian Express, The Hindu, Dainik Hindustan, Punjab Kesari and Rashtriya Sahara, Urdu, say the police fired 22 rounds. They are all silent about the number of rounds fired by the suspects. Rashtriya Sahara, Hindi, and Amar Ujala say the police fired 22 rounds and the ‘terrorists’ fired eight rounds.
Interestingly, the Navbharat Times claims that both the police and the suspects were armed with AK 47s but did not use them!
All the dailies reported the police claim that those shot at Batla House were terrorists responsible for several bomb blasts.
The Hindustan Times quoted Police Commissioner Y S Dadwal as saying that “explosives made by him (Atif -- our clarification) and his team bore their signature -- two detonators, wooden frame, ammonium nitrate and analogue quartz clocks”.
In light of this claim, the list of explosives claimed to have been recovered from the flat occupied by the suspects is interesting.
Dainik Hindustan says one AK 47, two pistols, one computer, and important papers were recovered.
Veer Arjun reports one AK 47, .30 bore pistols, cartridges, and 21 country pistols were found.
Navbharat Times says one AK 47, two .30 imported pistols, 20 live cartridges, a magazine, two laptops, mobile phones and other items were recovered.
Rashtriya Sahara, Hindi, says the police recovered one AK 47 and two .32 bore pistols, one computer, and books.
Punjab Kesari says the police found one AK 47, two pistols and one computer.
Amar Ujala says the police seized one AK 47, a .30 bore revolver, two laptops, half-a-dozen mobiles and six pen drives.
None of the dailies report the recovery of any ammonium nitrate and analogue quartz clocks. No question is asked about the recovery of these chemicals or equipment, claimed to be part of the terrorist group’s signature.
How many policemen were there?
The Indian Express reports that Sharma went there along with five officers.
The Mail Today reports a 15-member team led by Sharma.
Veer Arjun claims 50 personnel led by Sharma landed there.
Navbharat Times says a total number of 24 police personnel went there.
Amar Ujala reports that a 22-member police team cordoned off the area under the leadership of Sharma.
The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, Jansatta, Dainik Jagran and The Hindu refrain from mentioning the number of policemen involved in the operation.
How many bullets hit Sharma?
The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times, The Mail Today, The Hindu, Veer Arjun, Rashtriya Sahara, Hindi, all say three bullets hit Sharma.
Navbharat Times says four bullets hit him.
Jansatta claims that five bullets hit him in the abdomen, thigh, left arm, upper part of the shoulder and right hip (anchor story).
Rashtriya Sahara, Urdu, reports four bullets hitting him, one each on the shoulder, arm, back and right hip.
Rashtriya Sahara, Hindi claims that all three bullets were taken out during an operation in Holy Family hospital.
Amar Ujala also claims that bullets had been removed and quotes Dr Rajesh Chawla to this effect. It says Dr Chawla was summoned from Apollo hospital. He reportedly told the paper that there was excessive bleeding because the bullets hit the lung and the lower part and that after “bullets had been removed” it was felt that Sharma may survive.
Subsequent post-mortem reports quoted by some of the dailies said that Sharma had been hit by only two bullets and that both bullets had exited the body. No bullets were removed from his body.
About Mohan Chand Sharma
Even in paying tribute to Inspector Sharma the papers have reported different facts. The Hindustan Times says that he had “shot dead 75 criminals and terrorists”. The Times of India says he was “credited with the killing of 35 terrorists and the arrest of 80 others”. The Indian Express says that “Sharma’s ‘kill tally’ stood at 75 criminals including 35 terrorists”. The Hindu says he was instrumental in “neutralising 35 terrorists and arresting as many as 80 militants”. It goes on to say he had “gunned down 40 gangsters” and arrested “120” criminals. Amar Ujala reports that Sharma killed 35 terrorists and 40 gangsters, nabbed 80 terrorists and 129 gangsters. It says he was involved in 75 encounters.
The sensation trap
Apart from the confusion over facts, we are deeply concerned at the implicit bias in many news reports. This becomes blatant in screaming headlines in print or uncalled for dramatisation on television. Far more caution is called for in reporting events that pose a grave threat to communal harmony. We wish to use this report to warn our co-professionals of the danger of demonising an entire community by questioning their loyalty to the country and putting their lives at risk. It is vital that we exercise utmost restraint while reporting events that further polarise communities.
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 alleged terrorist Abdus Subhan Qureshi, one of the men arrested in Mumbai for his involvement in the 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 Qureshi’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.
On September 19, TV channels first began breaking the news around noon that policemen in the city were battling ‘terrorists’ holed up in L-18, Batla House, Jamia Nagar. The reporters in the field sounded breathless with excitement, reporting whatever they saw or heard. Some talked to residents without taking the elementary precaution of blurring their faces or concealing their identities. These residents, we presume, did not seek anonymity but some of them later complained to the DUJ team that visited the area that cameras were flashed at them without even seeking their permission and they wondered if that exposed them to risk. Since the TV reporters were vying for more news, in conditions that must have been rather confusing at the site of the incident, the editors in the studio could perhaps have exercised some restraint, keeping the safety of the residents in mind.
The newspapers carried the reports in the next day’s edition. Newspapers had at least eight hours to finalise their reports. Despite this, most of the newspapers mentioned in this report used only one source, the police, in their lead stories. The line between the reporter and the source is completely blurred in these stories.
For instance, The Times of India said in its first lead “…Delhi police killed two terrorists including key SIMI operative, Bashir alias Atif, who allegedly played a crucial role in the September 13 Delhi blast”.
Note that Atif has been killed, so the press has not been able to talk to him. Yet, the police version that he was a terrorist has been taken at face value without appending any evidence.
Reporters by definition must be Doubting Thomases. They have no right to suspend disbelief whilst on the job. Otherwise all reporting will become meaningless. In fact the search for new angles not only forms the cornerstone of the serious competition between reporters but throws up new facets of any unfolding story. It is clear that at least to begin with, most reporters suspended disbelief while reporting the operation. Considering the fact that the Delhi police has attracted a lot of flak from the media in the past for its inept handling of crime, this suspension of disbelief and showering of encomiums on the police seems strange. This can either be a result of ‘lazy’ reporting dependent solely on handouts, or the belief that people accused of serious offences can be bumped off with impunity. Both have serious implications for the profession and cannot be justified on any grounds, moral or professional.
In this case the media seems to have competed for superlatives to describe the martyrdom of special cell Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma and abusive epithets for those accused of being terrorists. Some sections of the media have even dubbed Azamgarh, identified as the hometown of many of the suspects, ‘Atankgarh’ (den of terror).
An exception to the trend
In contrast to most other dailies, The Mail Today did a good job of reporting the incident, incorporating the weak points in the police version and some questions in its lead story. In fact, it is the only paper that in its lead on September 20 played up the fact that Atif Amin had recently filled up a tenant verification form at Jamia Nagar police station, with a copy of his driving licence, his mobile number and his previous address in Sangam Vihar. All these details were later found to be correct. The paper argues that if the police had actually moved to verify the form, they could perhaps have averted the bomb blasts. It also says that either this points to Atif’s innocence or indicates that he was a devious terrorist who wanted to avoid raising suspicion.
The Mail Today had even made an effort to talk to the Azamgarh police and the SHO of Saraimeer police station under whose jurisdiction Atif’s village falls. The SHO, S N Singh, according to the paper, said none of Atif’s family members had a criminal record.
The picture of Sharma being led away by two men has also been used in full. However, the picture is not credited to anyone.
The day after
On September 21, The Hindustan Times, in an intriguing headline, says ‘Solved’. No questions are asked about how the police, which was clueless a week earlier, had within 24 hours solved all the bomb blasts in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Varanasi and Jaipur.
On page 2, alongside pictures of two people arrested and two killed, it gives thumbnail sketches of the boys. These are given out as facts and the source obviously is the police.
A notable feature of the second day’s reporting by several dailies is that still only police sources are being quoted. And no attempt has been made to cross-question them about some of the facts. For instance, according to The Times of India’s front-page story, the police is now claiming that Bashir alias Atif is the mastermind of the Indian Mujahideen.
The Navbharat Times, in a front-page story on September 21, says that the police used personal cars for the raid because the special cell had no vehicle available. It also says that “because the bad-quality 35 kg heavy bullet-proof jacket hampers activity the police personnel started the mission without wearing bullet-proof jackets” (a loose translation). Quoting unnamed personnel from the special cell, the story says that “Atif fired shots” after Saif had been overpowered in the drawing room of the flat.
The previous day (September 20), the same paper had said that when Inspector Sharma knocked on the door and Atif opened it and yelled, suddenly Sajid fired from his .30 pistol that pierced the left shoulder of the inspector. Another bullet wounded him in the lower abdomen.
Now which version is to be believed?
In the same Navbharat Times story on September 21, the last paragraph creates a new record in contradictions. We quote:
“Balwant (constable) tried to get in, but either Shahzad or Junaid, present in the room behind, opened fire. His bullet hit Balwant. Despite this Balwant had a scuffle with them. It is suspected that Junaid and Shahzad were not in the flat.”
Although, in most cases, the lead stories in the dailies depend entirely on the police version of events, almost all of them have carried separate stories on the atmosphere in Jamia Nagar. They talk about the anger and fear prevalent in the area. Some papers published pictures of residents alongside their views.
TV channels talked to residents too about what they saw and what they felt.
These reports present the different opinions of local people and some, like Jansatta, carry their photographs. The Indian Express on September 22, in Newsline, carried a story reporting how residents said they could have been of help to the police had they been taken into confidence. These reports say that Muslims in Jamia Nagar support the killing of terrorists but not of innocent people. One resident says that people are scared that they may become the next target of the police. But this story too does not ask them how the operation was executed, whether they witnessed it, or what they saw. It records only their opinion.
The Mail Today has done some of the best reporting, both from Delhi and Azamgarh, recording the various views of the Delhi and Azamgarh police, as well as residents of Jamia Nagar and Sanjarpur village in Azamgarh where the boys come from. It carries the opinions and photographs of several relatives of the suspects. Most importantly, it has maintained its objectivity and questioned the official version, pointing out discrepancies in the facts given out.
The Jamia Nagar episode is a sad reminder of the diminishing credibility of the media. Instead of playing the role of society’s ‘watchdog’, 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 to it 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 him. What is expected is that the reporter tries to give 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. It is unfortunate that not even the prefix ‘alleged’ or ‘suspected’ was used. Every TV channel was competing with the other to sensationalise the raid as much as possible, perhaps with an eye on TRP ratings.
Fortunately, there are still people in the media who caution their colleagues against such gullibility and try to present more reliable reports.
The magazines are definitely much better at analysing facts, maybe because they are less constrained by ‘deadlines’ than are daily reporters. Some columnists are also critical and reflective.
In The Week, Antara Dev Sen, in her column ‘I Witness’, comments (The Week, September 29 to October 8, 2008): “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 sceptical 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”.
Sevanti Ninan, reviewing the media’s role in Dainik Hindustan (September 28, 2008), 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 language used to describe the Bajrang Dal also indicates the way the media treats them. They are described only as “goons of Bajrang Dal,” they are never thought of as anti-national or terrorists. “Where do they get money from? This never becomes a subject of debate. But when it comes to those Christians and Muslims who are accused of religious conversions, the media takes great interest in filing news on where they are getting their money from.”
In Outlook, Smita Gupta and Chandrani Banerjee raise a number of questions. They cite a central minister as expressing concern over not just the fact that the Delhi police’s special cell may have botched up the case but of the long-term consequences it may have. “At a time when the majority of young Muslims are vying to join the mainstream, moving to the big cities to get better education and improve their opportunities, we appear to have alienated the community further.” The article says, quoting a senior intelligence 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,” (Outlook, October 6, 2008, page 30, 31).
The bias continues…
Despite the criticism it is a matter of concern that some TV channels continued with the strident note, describing the accused as ‘terrorists’. On the night of Sunday, September 28, 2008, IBN7 telecast a programme showing pictures of each of the four accused and calling them ‘terrorists’. It said they were absconding and gave short profiles of each of them.
NDTV at the same time was telecasting a discussion in its regular programme ‘Hum Log’ on whether Muslims should introspect. A point made forcefully by some of the participants was why should only Muslims introspect; why should India as a whole not do so. It also had a section on the way the media reported the incident.
Some attempts to act more responsibly are now evident. In Dainik Jagran, September 28, the picture of a woman from Mehrauli who claims to have seen the two motorbike riders who planted the bomb has been blurred. The blurring is not as good as it could have been, but an attempt has been made. However, the story carries her name, so any good done in hiding her identity by the blurred picture is cancelled by this oversight!
Other papers too have carried the story of a woman having had an altercation with those who planted the bomb. The woman was interviewed by at least one television channel which concealed her identity by showing her with her face covered with a pink dupatta, revealing only her eyes.
The growing reach and influence of the media, both print and electronic, has unfortunately not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in a sense of responsibility and accountability to society. The media plays watchdog to society, but there is no one to watch the media itself. As a consequence, public dissatisfaction with the media is on the rise.
Journalists have long held the view that they are beyond scrutiny. The ‘freedom of the press’ argument has been stretched to permit abuse and licence on the one hand and sycophancy towards the powers-that-be, on the other. Cases where the media has overstepped its brief, indulged in defamatory stories or relied on dubious sources are becoming common. The damage done to individuals’ lives and careers can sometimes be irremediable. It is vital for journalists to protect the media from such self-destructive tendencies. We need guidelines and more training for journalists, both those in the field and those at news desks and studios, to sensitise them to some of these issues.
Sensationalism, trivialisation, gender, caste and class bias are problems inherent in reporting, and exposure to ongoing discourse on these problem areas needs to be built by instituting more training courses and on-the-job refresher courses.
The profession has long held out against any code of conduct or regulatory mechanisms. The Press Council has limited powers and its jurisdiction is restricted to the print media. It is clearly time to amend the Press Council Act, extend it to the electronic media, give it statutory powers and rename it a Media Council.
Further, there is an urgent need for more media watching, more research and more media studies. This report is only one small attempt in that direction.
We hope that through such critiques of some of the stereotypes that the media perpetuates in society and the overt and covert biases in day-to-day reporting, we will be able to make our co-professionals introspect on these issues. A responsible media is essential for the defence of democracy and the rule of law.