The past fortnight has confirmed, once again, how deeply the independence of mainstream media in India has been dented.
There were two big stories – one that broke on April 14 and the other on April 15. The first cut to the heart of what the Modi government is all about, the spin it can give to events and how that pays electoral dividends. The second is about crime and the fascination of readers with criminals and crime.
While the first story was virtually ignored by most mainstream media (especially television, but also print), the second continues to be pursued with avid interest by all media. In that contrast lies the story of mainstream media and its preoccupations.
On April 14, the Wire published Karan Thapar’s with former Jammu and Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik. Some of what Malik told Thapar is known but there was also a great deal that was new and controversial.
The most startling was what Malik had to say about the Pulwama incident of February 14, 2019. A convoy of 78 vehicles carrying 2,547 CRPF personnel was on its way from Jammu to Srinagar when one of the vehicles collided with a car laden with explosives. Forty CRPF men died.
Malik said he knew the CRPF had requested aircraft to transport the personnel as it was considered unsafe for them to travel by road. This request, Malik alleged, was turned down by the home ministry.
Any newspaper worth its salt would see this as a story that needs to be followed through. Even if the government’s response is to obfuscate, that should be reported. Also after the Pulwama attack, there was some media follow-up – like this in Frontline – that established an intelligence failure. This makes it even stranger that there was so little follow-up to Malik’s statements.
Malik also said he spoke to the prime minister hours after the Pulwama tragedy and told him there had been a slip-up. He claimed he was told not to say anything. “Tum chup raho,” was apparently what Modi said.
While it took a day for most mainstream newspapers to report on the interview, these stories were mostly reports on what opposition politicians said about it. The reports were mostly relegated to inside pages, as in Newslaundry documents. The Telegraph was the only exception. No one even tried to get a reaction from the government, instead leaving it to the BJP’s media managers to run down Malik’s reputation on social media.
And as in Alt News notes, it comes as no surprise that there wasn’t a single primetime debate on any TV channel on Malik’s revelations.
While perhaps only two major newspapers carried editorial comment on the interview, and , the most substantial evaluation of Malik’s statements came from Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times. She was in Kashmir when Pulwama occurred and while Malik was governor. In her in Newslaundry, Bhasin criticised Malik for his role following the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019 when he was still governor. She also acknowledged that he raised several questions that need to be probed.
In striking contrast to the reportage on Malik’s interview was the other big story of the week, which broke just a day later. On the night of April 15, Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf were shot at point-black range while being taken by a posse of police to a hospital in Prayagraj. Atiq was a mafia don and a former elected member of the UP assembly and Parliament.
The killing took place in full view of TV cameras. The brothers were handcuffed to each other at the time. As Atiq answered a question posed to him by a journalist, a hand pointed a gun at his head. There were shots in quick succession. It was perhaps one of the most horrific and dramatic moments seen on live television in recent times in India.
Not surprisingly, it played out for hours on primetime TV news and was also on the front pages of all newspapers on April 16 – incidentally the first day that newspapers took note of the Malik interview. Clearly, the televised murder of a known criminal could not be ignored and, predictably, the story of Malik from a day earlier was drowned out.
But just as the Malik interview throws up many important questions about the Modi government, security, corruption and more, the murder of Atiq and Ashraf also poses questions about the rule of law, the UP government and its police, and about the way these killings are being celebrated and justified.
In contrast to the paltry editorial comment following the Malik interview, the Prayagraj murders provoked editorial comment in practically every major English language newspaper.
The wrote that “the chilling images of two men being killed on camera told a story not only of impunity but of a fumbling police force caught clueless – as citizens conduct their own encounter”. said this “typified the collapse of the rule of law in Uttar Pradesh” and went further to note that “due process is central to any rule of law, and once that is allowed to be short-circuited, the result is chaos.”
Calling the incident a “slip in security”, wrote: “The public murders of Atiq Ahmad and his brother will erode popular faith in due process, which forms the bedrock of any criminal justice system.”
called the killings “no better illustration of the collapse of law and order in Uttar Pradesh”. “While it is true that Atiq Ahmed and his associates had criminal cases against them,” the editorial said, “the state does not have the right to kill any person, criminal or otherwise. Even the worst criminal should get the benefit of due process of law as otherwise there.”
Only , which has been covering the incident extensively, raised the question of the intent behind the murders when it wrote: “Atiq’s long career as a politician who flitted through different political parties speaks to the nexus between criminals and politicians in the state. This, therefore, leads to the suspicion that his killing may be a bit convenient.”
It did not answer for whom the murder was “convenient” but pointed out that the murder was a symptom of a “dysfunctional criminal justice system” and that it had diverted attention from the “underlying nexus between instruments of the state and the underworld.”
The common thread that ran through all the editorials was about the breakdown of law and order. None justified the killing just because the two men were known criminals.
So far, the follow-up stories have either profiled the killers or the dead men. Indian Express has run a series of reports on the three men who shot and killed Atiq and Ashraf. Times of India has devoted a great deal of space to the incident with many details, including considerable space devoted to the criminal activities in which Atiq and his family were allegedly involved.
While this kind of follow-up is expected – and it goes without saying that stories on crime always draw eyeballs – will these papers persist and find out how and why these men could be killed in the full glare of television cameras?
For instance, an important question that remains unanswered is how the media knew that the men were being taken to the hospital. Did the police inform them and give them permission to gather outside the hospital? If so, why was this done given the security risk involved? Who gave the permission? Or did the media get a tipoff and gather without the police knowledge? If that’s the case, then how come the police did not stop the media from surrounding the two men?
spoke to several journalists who were on the spot. The report gives you a sense of what was happening away from the camera. But it does not answer the question about how the media arrived there in the first place.
Apart from these obvious questions, there are many more. Some of them have been raised in a by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties. These are questions not only for the government of Uttar Pradesh to answer but ones that the media should be investigating.
While the story of the killing of Atiq and Ashraf relates to law and disorder in one state, the revelations by Malik are nationally important. They must not be pushed aside.
However, given the BJP’s well-established strategy of deflecting and distracting whenever there is a story that it finds uncomfortable, and the willingness of most media to go along with this, it would be safe to bet that a follow-up to Malik’s statements, if it happens at all, will depend on independent media, not mainstream.
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