#RahulKanwalExposed began trending on Twitter this morning. Nearly 15,000 tweets had used the hashtag by afternoon, with troll handles using photos and videos to slam TV news channel India Today of, at best, biased journalism and, at worst, of “an act of treachery”.
At the centre of this online trend was a January 11 India Today broadcast that claimed Komal Sharma, a Delhi University student and a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was involved in the January 5th violence in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, which left at least 36 people injured.
The broadcast, anchored by the channel’s News Director Rahul Kanwal, switched occasionally from its investigative segments to live broadcasts from the university, where reporter Tanushree Pandey got comments from the JNU Students’ Union vice-president Saket Moon and general secretary Satish Chandra Yadav.
A video shot when Pandey was off air shows her talking to Moon over fluctuating volumes. While she keeps her voice low and once whispers into his ear, Moon responds normally. One can vaguely hear them discussing “servers” and “CCTV”, but the conversation is not distinct in normal levels of volume.
OpIndia, a Right-wing propaganda blog known to make up news, claimed in an article that the video “dents” India Today’s credibility. In a comic display of baseless insinuation, the piece claimed the video shows Pandey and Moon having “a conversation off the record where an attempt is deliberately made to have a hush-hush conversation so that the content of it is not audible to the observers. Furthermore, in the video, it appears that it isn’t journalism that was happening but propaganda with active collusion between the journalist and the vice president of JNUSU. The journalist appears to be buying wholeheartedly into whatever the JNUSU VP was selling and there doesn’t appear to be any effort on her part to verify the claims made by Saket.”
The usual suspects began hovering over the article, especially the video. The head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT Cell, Amit Malviya, tweeted out the video with the claim that it shows the two “caught in a hush hush off the record conversation where she appears to be ‘coaching’ the person”. The claim was picked from the OpIndia article, and Malviya shared its link too.
Filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri tweeted the video with the enthusiasm of an infant. He alleged that Pandey is in a “NEXUS with the LEFTIST students” and that she “tutors” Moon in the video. Agnihotri referenced the video from a handle called @politicalkida, known for spreading misinformation, which further claimed that Pandey was “teaching JNU student what to speak”. Kanchan Gupta, who is an ORF fellow and was appointed as chairperson of the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation by the BJP government, retweeted this. He added that it was a demonstration of “how #news is fixed by #MSM and why you must not trust what #media tells you”. To think he was once a journalist.
A closer look at the video and its context shows that these claims are blatantly false.
On January 10, the students’ union had challenged the JNU administration’s claim that the internet in the university was not functional after January 4 given the servers had been damaged, allegedly by Leftist student groups. It had claimed that the administration had emailed students on January 5 using the group mailing server of the university’s Communication and Information Services building, where the JNU servers are located. This, the union argued, wouldn’t have been possible without a working internet.
Newslaundry has learned that Pandey, who had been attending the press conferences held by the students’ union, was pursuing this twist. Her “hush-hush conversation” with Moon was simply a clarification regarding a detail in the union’s claim. It is plain as day why Moon, the vice-president of the Union, is a good candidate for providing clarification.
In the video released by OpIndia, Pandey tells Moon that she’ll be asking him about ABVP’s Komal Sharma, who was allegedly involved in the January 5 violence in the university. There is nothing odd about this.
After a few seconds, the journalist keeps her mic at a distance and asks Moon how a damaged server could not store CCTV footage but send emails. Moon points out that the vice-chancellor, M Jagadesh Kumar, had told India Today that the servers at CIS are the “nerve centres”. But that does not answer Pandey’s question. She rephrases it: are the servers for the internet and the CCTV footage in JNU the same? Moon reiterates his answer, but admits that he is “not a technical person”. “But,” he adds, “the server was working and wifi was intermittent. When they felt it should stop, they stopped it.”
To back up his point, Moon then tells Pandey that there were registrations for the winter semester done on January 5. “They happened in SIS,” he claims. He then corrects Pandey, who mistakes SIS for a separate server station. This is followed by an interruption following which the two become inaudible and the video ends.
“She was confused between SIS and CIS,” Moon told Newslaundry, referring to Pandey. “SIS is the School of International Studies, and CIS is the Communication and Information Services. It was a very basic doubt.”
When Pandey and Moon went on air, they did not bring up anything about the servers or the emails. But the prospect of spreading misinformation online seemed promising. @politicalkida tweeted: “Look how the conversation went exactly how the India Today Journalist had prepared in advance.”
In the stupor that comes with ecosystem allegiances, Agnihotri and Gupta failed to spot this.
The next day, Pandey tweeted a screenshot of an email that the JNU administration had purportedly sent to the students on January 5. It’s timestamp reads “Sun, 5 Jan, 13:58 pm” and it carries the signature of the CIS.
Despite this, on January 13, the Delhi’s Police SIT rejected the JNUSU’s claim. “Forensic experts told us that it was badly damaged and no emails could have been sent,” they insisted.
Asked how he felt being mobbed online, Moon told Newslaundry that since India Today had “exposed” the ABVP in its sting investigation, the latter “do not know how to respond to it, so they are now just trolling everyone. I too got caught into all this”.
An employee at India Today told Newslaundry that the online trolling had caused much amusement in the office. “Everyone was laughing, they said ‘we knew it had to happen’,” the employee said.
There are two takeaways from this bout of misinformation. One, it’s good to keep a check on the media and very necessary to scrutinise it, but for that, it’s wise to have facts in your toolkit, not laughable innuendos. Two: “If you’re looking for facts,” Socrates is believed to have whispered to Plato in a hush-hush conversation, “you’ll never find them on OpIndia.”