They were the unlikeliest of killings, considering live television, heavy police presence and a media frenzy around gangster-turned-politician Atiq Ahmed, his family, and associates.
But when three suspects posing as mediapersons gunned down Atiq and his brother Ashraf in Prayagraj, lapses on part of the UP police were as much in focus as the unwavering commitment of journalists, who continued to report from the spot despite the risk.
Several journalists were present outside the hospital at the time of the incident, including those from ANI, PTI and Aaj Tak. The video journalist who recorded the incident was Aaj Tak’s cameraperson Neeraj Kumar, sources said.
“The bullet could have hit any of us,” said a reporter who was among the many who saw the Ahmed brothers being shot dead while they were being taken for a routine check-up by the UP police to Colvin Hospital at 10.30 pm on Saturday. “Anyone will be scared if suddenly gunshots are fired around you and you find yourself right at the centre of a shootout. A lot of reporters were live on TV.”
Pankaj Srivastav, journalist with Press Trust of India, was also caught in the action. In a video tweeted by PTI, he shared his first hand account. “The gun shot nearly escaped me. My colleague Shiv saved my life by pushing me down and the gun shot passed from right above me.”
Newslaundry reached out to him, but he refused to comment on the incident.
Shailesh Pandey, a cameraperson with ANI, was injured in the episode. “My focus was entirely on my camera. When I heard gunshots, I ran away from the spot to save myself. But my foot got entangled in something, so I fell down and my leg got sprained. I am still unwell so I can’t talk to you at length.”
Earlier on Saturday, the UP police had taken the Ahmed brothers to their native village Kasari Masari to collect evidence for the ongoing investigation in the Umesh Pal murder case, after which they were brought back to Dhoomanganj police station.
Vikas Srivastav, an ANI reporter who was covering the case with Shailesh, said, “The moment the police took out their vehicle to take them for a routine medical check-up, we were the first ones to line up our car right next to the police vehicle. And then other reporters chased. I asked Atiq about the denial of permission to attend his son’s last rites. He replied, ‘nahi dikhaya to nahi dikhaya’. And then, when he was just about to say something else, a gunshot was fired from my right side. An Aaj Tak reporter was on my right side. First, I heard the sound and thought a cracker had burst. Then I saw that Atiq had been shot and he fell to the ground. In no time, one of the assailants came to the front while pushing our camera and started firing. Around 17 rounds of gunshots were fired and then they started sloganeering ‘Jai Shri Ram’. And then the police arrested them.”
With Shailesh injured in the chaos, Vikas had to take up subsequent camerawork. “Yes, we were scared, but we had to get back to work. I can cry and process the incident later. I started recording immediately because when you are on the field, you don’t want to miss the moment. We have to be the first to break the news. This is the duty of a reporter. And the next day at 7 in the morning, all of us were back to work.”
Another journalist, who was on the spot and did not wish to be named, said, “I had never witnessed any such incident. Probably, I won’t in the future as well. But being in the profession has trained me not to run away but to capture everything despite being scared of your life.”
Punjab Kesari’s Sayeed Raja reached the spot about 15 minutes after the shootout. “When I reached there, it was a state of anarchy. All the reporters were terrified. But I observed the police had made a slight change in rules. Before the shootout, they were not checking the ID cards of the reporters, but they had later barricaded the road and were allowing reporters to cross only after checking their identity cards.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with after the incident, Neeraj said, “I had never witnessed something like this in my entire career. It was all chaotic. Everyone stepped back. Even the police could not understand anything. I stayed in my position and kept the camera static. And my only aim was to capture everything. I also got a minor fire burn on my arm. But that’s why we report from the ground, to give the best visuals to our viewers.”
The FIR in the incident stated that mediapersons were injured in a stampede-like situation.
The central government has decided to prepare standard operating procedures for the safety of journalists in the wake of the incident. According to reports, these will be prepared by the union home ministry.
Update at 6.30 pm, April 17: This article erroneously mentioned that the Pinto Mishra encounter took place during Mayawati's tenure. This has been corrected.
Update at 12.50 pm, April 18: A quote from a stringer has been anonymised after fear of backlash.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.