[Reader-list] The media should be sceptical of the state’s narratives: Mukul Kesavan

Shivam Vij शिवम् विज् mail at shivamvij.com
Thu Apr 10 20:21:07 IST 2008

PRESUMING INNOCENCE - The media should be sceptical of the state's narratives


India has a free news media which we shouldn't take for granted.
Anyone who lived through the Emergency will remember how oppressive
and conspiratorial the world can seem when the state turns censor.
English language newspapers and news channels in India have much to be
proud of: their determination to tell the truth and to document
atrocity during the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 was an outstanding
example of how a free press can bear witness when the state fails its
citizens. The awfulness of Nandigram would never have come to light in
a country with a more pliant press. But on some issues the press and
the news networks seem to suffer a collective breakdown: the
scepticism about narratives sponsored by the state that marks out good
journalism is replaced by a willing suspension of disbelief.

Since 9/11, stories that can be classified as instances of Islamic or
Muslim terrorism read more like police briefings than news reports.
The press coverage of S.A.R. Geelani's arrest in connection with the
attack on Parliament seven years ago was one example of the
near-hysterical collusion between the news media and government
agencies. Geelani's subsequent acquittal made several newspapers and
television news channels look both craven and credulous. The reporting
on the Student's Islamic Movement of India, banned since 2001, is
shaping up to be another such story.

The April 2 edition of a leading daily carried a story on the arrest
of thirteen Muslims, said to be members of SIMI, under the headline
"The 13 Faces of Terror". The headline was made graphic by thirteen
mugshots of the arrested men that bordered the story. The bold-face
blurb under the headline read: "Arrested SIMI activists helped Lashkar
plan and execute Mumbai train blasts".

As a reader, I had no way of knowing if this was in fact what the
arrested men had done. If the blurb was true, I expected the reporter
to tell me why he thought so, because the headline and the blurb
suggested not just evidence but conclusive proof. But as I read my way
through the story, it became clear that despite the breathless prose
("In a pre-dawn swoop… etc"), the story was a transcription of
anonymous police leaks and briefings. The Maharashtra police, the
Hyderabad police, the Karnataka police were cited, the odd 'allegedly'
was inserted but the tone of the reportage suggested that the police's
claims that these men had colluded with an alphabet soup of Pakistani
terrorist groups (the LeT, the HuJI, the JeM), and were involved in
acts of terror in India, were incontrovertible. For example, there was
a single-sentence paragraph in the report (without attribution or
qualifying adverbs), which made a categorical assertion: "SIMI members
had helped the LeT plan as well as execute the serial bomb blasts on
Mumbai locals in July 2006 that killed over 180 people".

The prime catch, Safdar Nagori, the national secretary-general of
SIMI, who has been underground since the organization was first
proscribed in 2001, was, the reader was told, "suspected to be
involved in the 11/7 serial blasts in Mumbai". Then the prose became
categorical: "He was the group's point person with the ISI, and the
jihadi leadership based there. Last year, he plotted attacks in south

The biographical notes that accompanied the mugshots read like police
memos. Khalid was the "son of one Mohammed Salim"; Hafeez Hussein "is
son of one Tasuddin". Reading through them, I realized that while some
of the arrested men like Nagori and Shibli Abdul were wanted as
suspects in earlier incidents of terror, most of the thirteen suspects
had been arrested for attending three meetings in Karnataka convened
by Safdar Nagori in 2007. Being an active member of a banned
organization is a legitimate ground for arresting someone, but it
doesn't, in itself, indicate collusion in terrorism.

Aware of this, the Indore police, who arrested the men, declared that
seven pistols, 32 cartridges, 9 mobile phones, 15 masks, 22 surgical
gloves and other surgical instruments were recovered from the three
rooms where they had been staying for the last month. It's hard to
estimate the significance of those enigmatic surgical instruments, but
the formidable cache of seven pistols and 32 cartridges seemed enough
to persuade reporters that the police were justified in charging them
with collecting arms with the intention of waging a war against the
Indian government and promoting enmity between classes.

The police, in fact, weren't even certain if one of the arrested,
Mohammad Yaseen, had attended the Karnataka meetings. "His exact role
in the outfit and background," wrote the reporter, "is still being
probed." And yet the headline confidently encourages the reader to
identify Mohammad Yaseen's photograph as one of thirteen faces of

It's one thing to report a police briefing as a police briefing, quite
another to trick it out into a featured news report which reads like a
prosecutor's brief. The reports of the incident on ndtv.com, in The
Hindu, the DNA, The Telegraph and the The Indian Express were
scrupulous about attributing the story to the police. The reporter of
another leading daily added an interesting wrinkle: "Incidentally," he
wrote, "all the states (except MP and Haryana) to which the arrested
SIMI men belong have suffered terror attacks in the past." Since four
of the thirteen men arrested belong to terror-free Madhya Pradesh, it
wasn't clear how the suggested correlation between regional
affiliation and terrorist incident worked, but in the mind of the
reporter there was an obvious connection.

What all the stories about these arrests lacked was any interest in
getting the other side of the story, the point of view of the arrested
men or their friends or their families. I put this to a journalist
friend of mine. He said, "What would be the point of that? What would
their families say that wouldn't be utterly predictable?" But surely
the whole point of good journalism is to assume that there's another
side to every story like this, that for the sake of fairness, if
nothing else, setting down the case for the defence must be

The arrests happened on March 27. News agencies like the PTI did their
job by setting down the police version; newspapers like the leading
daily, whose report is cited extensively in this piece, didn't do
theirs when they embellished the police narrative instead of testing
it. It might have helped if their reporters had remembered that Hafeez
Hussein and Khalid, besides being "the son of one Tasuddin" and "the
son of one Mohammad Salim", were, first and last, fellow citizens of a
free republic, innocent till they were proven guilty.

mukulkesavan at hotmail.com

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