If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on as far as the Islamic State (IS) is concerned, it is that the group knows how to use the internet. The terrorist group’s nifty use of the world wide web has made it possible for it to recruit from unexpected places, like America for instance. Add to this the alarm its acts of terror and numerous threats inspire, and you have the perfect bogeyman. At least that’s what the Times of India (ToI) seemed to think.
On March 21, 2017, ToI carried a report on its front page headlined: “Missing JNU student saw IS videos”. The full story was on page three, occupying a meaty chunk of the page. It said that according to Delhi Police, Jawaharlal Nehru University student Najeeb Ahmed, who has been missing since October 14, 2016, had been “looking for information on the so-called Islamic State’s ideology, executions and network in the months preceding his disappearance.” The newspaper also claimed that Delhi Police has received a detailed report of Ahmed’s browsing history from Google and YouTube after analysing his laptop. It revealed that his Google searches included “things such like ways to join IS” and that he had watched videos on YouTube that were “related to the Islamic State”. On the night of October 14, ToI claimed Ahmed had been watching a speech by an IS leader before he got into an altercation with Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members. The report claims that police is looking into the possibilities of Ahmed “getting radicalised and being lured away via Nepal.”
For one of India’s widely-circulated publication, these are serious claims to make. Who would have thought that they would do so and effectively peg an entire article on inputs from the Delhi Police without any such information from Delhi Police?
Yesterday, Delhi Police released a statement that denied all that ToI had reported. Delhi Police’s chief spokesperson Dependra Pathak, referring to the report, said, “We saw a report in the media claiming that Google and YouTube had indicated that Najeeb was listening to a speech by an IS member a day before he went missing and may be associated with the organisation. The police has not received any such report.” Pathak specifically said that so far, no association of Ahmed with ISIS had come up during its investigation.
Today, ToI carried the statement by Public Relations Officer (Crime) Madhur Verma, which repeats Pathak’s assertion that no link has been found between Ahmed and IS. “Neither was any requisition sent to Google or YouTube regarding this, nor any report receive in this regard,” says the statement. ToI offered no apology for or retraction of its article, which remains available online without any updates.
Meanwhile, the reporter Raj Shekhar Jha chose to defend his story (although he did later delete a number of these tweets) in a conversation with Kavita Krishnan on Twitter.
Ahmed’s case is a sensitive one, particularly for the Delhi Police which has not only failed to locate him in the last five months, but has also made repeated faux pas in its investigation. First, it claimed that Ahmed was seen in Bihar’s Darbhanga, which later turned out be a false alarm. Then the police claimed that his family had received a ransom call – even though his mother wasn’t aware of any such call. It later turned out that the 19-year-old accused had made the call just to get money from the Ahmed family and has never seen Najeeb Ahmed.
Under the circumstances, Delhi Police is understandably eager to clear its name, but it also raises questions about ToI’s editorial rigour. It is shocking that the newspaper would go ahead and publish an article pegged to information allegedly procured from the Delhi Police, but without either verifying the information or any record to back up these claims. There are no specific officers mentioned, either by name or as an unnamed source. Yet the vagueness of this report didn’t raise any eyebrows in ToI, it seems.
The fact is that it is not unusual for reporters to work to get off-the-record leads from sources, particularly in cases that involve government agencies whose interactions with the media are meant to be restricted. However, it falls upon the journalist to follow these leads up, question the source, examine the information, and cross-check with other sources. Only if they still pan out does a lead become an article conventionally? When Newslaundry asked Jha if he had tried to cross-question his sources, he said, “I will not be able to talk about this at the moment.”
Cross-checking claims made by sources and questioning them are among the basic rules of journalism, particularly when articles are given a longer lease of life as they go up on websites. Every reporter wants scoops. All of us want exclusives, especially when it comes to cases like Ahmed’s disappearance which remains baffling and tragically open-ended. None of us want to have to be shackled to careful, opaquely-worded official statements that reveal the absolute minimum. Yet with reports like the one that ToI carried, the scepticism about the media increases and its reputation for being responsible takes a beating. Of course, we want to break news, but in the process of reporting, it’s imperative that we don’t forget the responsibility that comes with being a journalist, particularly one who works for legacy media.
Future searches will lead people to this ToI article claiming a connection between Ahmed and IS, but how many will even find Verma’s statement? Legacy media enjoys a position of authority especially in the age of digital journalism because it has more resources and access than new media. The next time someone’s discussing “anti-nationals of JNU” or Ahmed’s case in particular, this article could be held up as evidence and most of us would trust it. Because hey, it’s ToI. Except this time, ToI got it spectacularly wrong and didn’t own up to its mistake.