In a post-truth era, where does the fear of prosecution end for journalists in India today?
Flashback 2013: Muzaffarnagar Riots
I was in college when Muzaffarnagar riots broke out in Uttar Pradesh.
TV channels were flooded with communal speeches by politicians and activists. The front pages of newspapers flashed burning photographs from several small villages in Western Uttar Pradesh. Journalists across the spectrum tried to retrace the origin of one of the worst Hindu-Muslim riots in the country.
It pointed to the killing of three young men in a tiny village called Kawal – one Muslim and two Hindus. Families of the Hindu men claimed the scuffle was over harassment of their daughter, the families of the Muslim boy claimed the matter was about the motorcycle accident. The initial FIR mentioned only the motorcycle accident.
Over the course of time, reporters spoke to various stakeholders...from neighbours to eyewitnesses to policemen to district authorities, all of them had a different version of events to present.
The newspapers printed it all, the TV channels broadcast it all. As and when the different truths unfolded.
....to Junaid, to Qasim
Cut to 2017. The whole country was outraging over the mob lynching of a 17-year-old Muslim boy aboard a Delhi-Mathura train. The victim’s brothers, who were also assaulted by the mob, claimed the accused hurled “communal slurs” against them while beating their brother to death.
In light of this incident, a campaign #NotInMyName was held across different cities to protest against a spate of attacks on Muslims in India, under the Narendra Modi government, which brands itself as the champion for the Hindutva cause.
The trial court, while framing charges on 11 October 2017, had said that the accused “had abused the victims in the name of their religion and they also did not allow the victim to alight from the train and when the quarrel ensued, accused Naresh caused injuries with sharp-edged weapon.”
The investigation carried on. Nine months after Junaid’s killing, the Punjab and Haryana High Court disagreed with the trial court and said the initial dispute between the victims and the accused was “only regarding the seat sharing and abuses in the name of castes and nothing more”. Junaid’s family was displeased and did not agree with the court’s observation.
Once again, all the contradicting versions, the developments in the investigations, the observations of the court...all of it was reported, documented by the media.
In July 2018, my editors sent me to Hapur to cover another case of lynching of a Muslim man. I was barely months into the profession... nervous, scared, confused. My only brief was to record the versions of every stakeholder in the incident – victim(s), accused and eyewitnesses. On the way to the spot, my editor called and reminded me, “While you listen to versions, ask them counter questions. Play the devil’s advocate to both parties. And don’t forget to trust your gut.”
What I found was the victim’s family claiming he was assaulted on the suspicion of cow slaughter, the accused’s family claiming the Muslim men were “about to slaughter a cow”, and the police denying a cow angle altogether.
Despite a video showing one of the victims’ beards being pulled and him being pushed around by a mob who hurled communal slurs, the police denied any communal angle and insisted that it was a matter of “road rage.” Later, they admitted that the village mob was fed with rumours of cow slaughter.
I repeated the drill. Reported on all versions and developments, with context.
I followed the same rule for the next three years while reporting on hate crimes or incidents that were given communal spin – be it the contrasting timeline of events leading to the cremation of a Dalit rape victim in Hathras last September, or the contrasting claims of ‘Love Jihad’ by the families and the right-wing groups outside Nikita Tomar’s house in October or the events that led to the murder of Rinku Sharma in Delhi’s Mangolpuri.
As an editorial practice at The Quint, whenever an incident with conflicting versions comes to light, we either physically go on the ground or reach out via phone calls to the victim, the accused, and the local police.
Report All Sides But Open the Window too...
In journalism schools and in newsrooms, the first lesson in reporting conflicting truths is – If one party says it is raining outside, and another says it is not, mention both claims but also open the window to check for yourself.
Hate crimes often have conflicting versions – sometimes one party is lying due to a motivated agenda or local political pressure. And sometimes both parties are saying the truth, but from their perspectives. Hence, it becomes even more important to be vigilant but to report all sides of the story, and keep documenting the developments in investigation thereafter.
The point is, even reporting the different versions with a context in cases of hate crimes shows the mindset of different stakeholders and how that is evolving in a country that is constantly getting increasingly polarised.
That is exactly what several journalists did while covering the recent attack on an elderly Muslim man in Ghaziabad’s Loni. They first reported about the incident based on the allegations made by the victim Abdul Samad Saifi. The man, who has described the incident in graphic detail on video, was quoted by many media reports as saying his beard was cut and he was forced to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
The UP Police, which is still investigating the attack against Saifi and yet to submit any report, said while the attack on Saifi is heinous, the allegation of being forced to chant communal slogans is “untrue”. The Ghaziabad Police, as part of routine practice, replied to several tweets talking about the victim’s initial allegations. And, like routine norms, many media outlets immediately updated their story with the new development in the incident.
The Quint, too, spoke to the victim, the families of the accused, and noted the police version on the incident in its articles.
However, what was bizarre this time was that the UP Police filed FIRs against journalists and media outlet The Wire claiming that they were guilty of a criminal conspiracy to spread communal hatred. On 15 June, the police registered an FIR against (1) six individuals for their tweets on the victim’s claims, (2) The Wire for its tweet of 14 June (7:15 pm), and (3) Twitter for having published these tweets.
I acknowledge that it is important to mention a claim as a “claim” when one is tweeting and/or reporting such sensitive stories, the FIR singling out The Wire for a news report on the incident raise questions on multiple counts:
The report for which The Wire was booked is curated from a news report by NDTV. It was not their original reportage. The story contained the victim’s version and was updated with the police version, which came a day later.
Their tweet did not mention the word “allegation” even though the story did. One can say that the news organisation could have worded the tweet better but an FIR for “trying to create tensions in the area” because they narrated the victim’s version still seems far-fetched.
There were several right-wing leaders and groups making polarising statements and threatening to incite violence on ground, on video, on social media outside the homes of Nikita Tomar and Rinku Sharma’s house, refusing to cede to the police version of “no communal angle”. Websites like OpIndia and Sudarshan News, too, carried reports of the incident being communal despite police saying it “was a fight over a birthday party.” The same scenes were witnessed after Ankit Saxena was killed by his Muslim girlfriend’s family and after a Dalit victim was raped and murdered by Thakur men in Hathras. If FIRs are the norm, why were no FIRs filed against these groups for trying to “incite tensions”? Why is the implementation of law not uniform?
There have been no reports of actual tension in Loni so far, but there was a protest rally held after Nikita Tomar’s death by right-wing groups about which the Haryana Police was well aware of but didn’t act. The rally did turn violent and many were arrested but given bail thereafter.
‘Sedition’ Charge For Reporting Family, Eyewitness Claims
This wasn’t the first time that the UP Police cracked down on journalists for reporting the victim’s side of the story in recent times.
Several journalists and media houses including The Caravan, Rajdeep Sardesai and The Wire were booked for ‘sedition’ for reporting the story of Navreet Singh, a farmer who died in suspicious condition during the tractor rally on 26 January in Delhi. The family had claimed that he died due to police firing, a claim that has been disputed by the police. The story had both versions but a tweet by Rampur district magistrate, replying to The Wire’s Founding Editor Siddharth Varadarajan’s tweet, also said, “Hope you understand your story could cause law and order problem here. It has already caused tensed situation here (sic).”
It must be pointed out that while in Navreet’s case, the media reports carried claims made by either his family or eyewitnesses, in the Ghaziabad incident, the victim himself narrated his version of events. The premise of the entire investigation starts there...from the first allegations of the victim. The police may or may not find contradicting evidence later upon investigation.
It is important for a reporter to not believe a video circulated on social media without verifying the context or the facts with the victim or the police, but the filing of FIRs claiming the journalists are trying to incite “communal tension” for simply documenting a victim’s version sets a dangerous precedent.
On 17 June, the Editors Guild of India said it is “deeply concerned by the UP Police’s track record of filing FIRs against journalists to deter them from reporting serious incidents without fear of reprisals.”
"“It is the duty of journalists to report on the basis of sources and in case facts become contested later on, to report the emerging versions and facets. For police to wade into such professional calls by journalists and attribute criminality to their actions is destructive freedom of speech, which is constitutionally protected and is entrenched feature of the rule of law.”" - Editors Guild of India
So, next time I am reporting on an alleged hate crime in India, should I not publish a news report before the police complete their investigation and submit a final report in court or the court passes a verdict? Will I be booked for spreading “fake news” or “inciting tensions” if I report what the victim or the accused have alleged, if the police during its investigation claim an alternate sequence of events? If I am on the spot witnessing an incident that the police deny, will I be liable to a criminal charge for reporting a contrasting version?
... In a post-truth era, where does the fear of prosecution end for journalists in India today?
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