A mother-son duo was murdered six months ago in Guwahati but the case has taken the Assamese media by storm only this week with the arrest of main accused Bandana Kalita and her friends Arup Deka and Dhonti Deka.
From unsubstantiated claims about refrigerated body parts and demands by accused to eat chicken in custody, to an invasion of privacy that has put families on the edge, coverage of the case gradually seems to be setting a benchmark in sensationalist practices for regional news channels.
Consider the example of Bornali’s family in Guwahati.
Her father Kailash Deka has several health issues and has been mentally disturbed since her brother Arup’s arrest. But that did not stop the TV media from bombarding him with questions at the family’s home, not even when he broke down. In fact, that’s when the cameras started rolling, the family claimed.
“Initially, they (media) spoke to my father without cameras or mics. But when he broke down and cried uncontrollably, they opened their cameras,” said Bornali, sharing the backstory behind a viral video clip of her father which has been repeatedly aired by the Assamese media.
“Reporters are visiting us almost every day. We are fully cooperating with them, giving bytes and interviews. But they don’t listen when I request them not to speak to my father as he has health issues and disturbed ever since Arup was arrested,” Bornali said.
Newslaundry also saw a video which showed mediapersons continuing to interview Kailash Deka despite requests to leave. “This is enough now. Go now. Otherwise, his blood pressure will shoot up,” a woman is heard saying.
As Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists based on major texts of international law and the universal declaration of human rights, a journalist shall show particular “consideration to inexperienced and vulnerable interviewees”.
Cops point out unsubstantiated claims
Television reportage, especially, has been replete with unsubstantiated claims. On Wednesday, , a mainstream channel, reported that the main accused Bandana demanded pork in custody. This came a day after nearly all channels had claimed that she was asking for chicken. The channels also alleged that she had mutilated the bodies of the victims and stored it in a refrigerator.
However, responding to queries at a press conference on Monday, Guwahati Police Commissioner Diganta Bora said, “In our investigation, we have not found anything about any fridge.”
Asked by reporters about the accused demanding chicken on Wednesday, he laughed it off. “You guys have reported about a fridge too…but we did not say it.”
Another police source dismissed such reports as “rumours”. “Lots of rumours are being spread and news channels are reporting it. There is no truth to it.”
Meanwhile, at least two reporters with two mainstream news channels told Newslaundry that nobody knows the source of the refrigerator theory.
“I believe it was intended to give it a sensational spin like the Shraddha Walkar murder case. But I am sure it did not come from the police at all,” said a reporter who has been covering the case since the arrest. However, the reporter claimed that the source of the reports claiming that Bandana demanded chicken in custody was an input from lower-rung police officials.
Police are yet to ascertain the motive behind the alleged murders.
Subimal Bhattacharya, a Northeast observer, criticised the role of the media. “What is the level of probing that is going on and what outcome comes out of such kind of reporting besides creating sensationalism? So society basically gets impacted because of this kind of reporting.”
Uddipan Dutta, a scientific officer at Guwahati University, said it would be wrong to completely blame the media. “Our societies never fully accepted this difference between public and private. This is why when news channels break these borderlines, no question is raised…people like it. So it would be wrong to put the blame completely on the media. Our societies are responsible too.”
While Assam got its first private satellite channel, Northeast Television, only in 2004, growth has mushroomed in the sector since 2008, with several channels owned directly or indirectly by political and business groups. The state now has around seven prominent news channels, including Newslive, DY365, Prag News, Pratidin Time, NK TV, News Daily 24, and News18 Assam.