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Why isn't the media accountable?

By Arvind Lavakare
February 05, 2003 14:46 IST
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Even the Central Bureau of Investigation's testimony in court that the Bajrang Dal had no links with any of the 18 accused in the Graham Staines murder in January 1999 hasn't satisfied the media secularists.

The Indian Express of January 29, 2003 (without a by-line) contained enough spice of suspicion about what the CBI officer said on oath.

Thus, that report dubbed the concerned CBI officer's testimony 'surprising as the accused named in the FIR had been earlier described as members of the Bajrang Dal. Even several prosecution witnesses had deposed before the trial judge that the accused were shouting slogans like 'Bajrang Dal zindabad' before setting Staines and his sons on fire.'

Note how the above paragraph makes the reader believe that

i. all the 18 accused had been described in CBI's FIR as Bajrang Dal members, and

ii. the CBI contradicted that description with impunity before the trial judge.

The fact is totally different as reported under the by-line of Jitendra Dash on the Hindustan Times web site The latter recorded that what the CBI officer told the court was: 'Although the FIR lodged by the CBI had identified six persons, including Dara Singh as members of the Bajrang Dal, we did not find evidence to corroborate this claim.'

Clearly, only six of the accused, and not all the 18, were given the Bajrang Dal tag in the CBI's FIR; clearly, the CBI came to a different conclusion only after it did not get corroborative evidence to justify that tag.

The 'secular' media's belligerent attitude towards the Hindutva forces has been pronounced since the rape of four missionary nuns in Jhabua in September 1998. The English press screamed 'rapists' at the Bajrang Dal and the world echoed that scream. It was later, much later, that the rape was revealed as being really an intra-Christian mess.

In the X-mas week of that year came the attacks on Christian prayer halls in Dangs and Surat districts of Gujarat. Once again there were flaming outbursts in the English media against the Hindutva votaries; once again, the world poured oil into those 'fires.' It was later, much later, discovered that not a single Christian had been killed in those clashes, and that the original sinners were not Hindu 'fanatics.'

Very soon thereafter was the episode in Wyanad in northern Kerala when the 'secularists' reported that a priest and four women were beaten up and a Bible was stolen by... 'fanatical' Hindus, who else? An FIR on those lines was lodged with the police, Communist processions against those 'atrocities' were held all over Kerala and the press went berserk once again. Later, all this was found as untrue by an Indian Express reporter.

Then came the Staines murder in January 1999. Not only the press but also the President of India cried 'murder most foul.' The USA and the rest of the Christian world pounced on Hindutva and, in the process, humiliated the entire nation.

Unknown to the public, the President had taken keen interest in the affair. Thus, he granted an interview to four Communist leaders headed by an MP who wanted to show him a charred wrist watch that a team of MPs had found at the murder scene during their visit there. After meeting them, the President thought it fit to write on February 23, 1999 to Home Minister L K Advani, informing him that the four Left leaders had met him and showed him the watch, and that he had told one of them to hand the watch directly to the authorities investigating the matter after contacting the home minister. (Source: Justice D P Wadhwa Commission Report, June 21, 1999)

To give the benefit of doubt to the then President, he probably did what he did because, close on the Staines murder, there were newspaper headlines about the rape of one Sister Jacqueline Mary in Gadadeuilia, Baripada district in Orissa by one of the persons who had offered her a lift on February 4, 1999.

Just a few days later came reports of a multiple crime: the murder of one boy aged 10, attempt to murder another and rape and murder of a 19-year-old girl in Mandasaru village, Kandamal district, Orissa. All the victims were Christians.

The newspapers had gone to town over the above two incidents. On the Sister Mary episode, The Telegraph of Calcutta had screamed 'Nun gangraped by men in sari in Orissa' and The Indian Express had come up with 'Orissa's second stain: nun raped.' What's more, The New India Express, Bhubaneswar, of February 6, 1999, reported that a bipartisan group of 24 US influential lawmakers had written to Prime Minister Vajpayee expressing grave concern over increase in the anti-Christian violence in Gujarat and Orissa.

The Mamdasaru tragedy led to headlines of 'Two Christians killed, one injured in Orissa,' '2 Tribals done to death in Kandhamal' and 'Orissa hunts for Christian killers.'

Long after this media sensationalising had done the damage to Hindutva and the nation's government, investigations found that Sister Mary had filed a false FIR and that that she had not, in fact, been raped. The crime in Kandamal was found to have been committed by a Christian relative of the Christian victims.

It's because of the above kind of sensationalism that the Wadhwa Commission Report, while coming to the conclusion that 'There is no evidence that any authority or organisation was behind the gruesome killings' of Graham Staines and his sons, recommended that 'There should be a Code of Conduct for the political parties' whereby 'Leaders cannot make statements merely for gaining political mileage. Their statements should be subdued and not to fan the fire when the atmosphere is communally charged. Allow the police to make independent investigation of the crime uninfluenced by politics or religion or caste.'

However, considering that politicians are influenced almost entirely by newspaper headlines (which they often hold up in Parliament), the Wadhwa Commission's plea to the media is more critical than its advice to politicians. The Commission recommended, 'Media, both print and electronic, has also to exercise restraint. Screaming headlines should be avoided which have the effect of misleading the public and creating more tension and suspicion among different communities. Reporting of communal strife should not be done without proper verification or an ordinary crime given a communal twist.'

But our media seemed to have been upset by the Wadhwa Commission's refusal to associate the Bajrang Dal with the Staines murder. One news channel even permitted a debate in which two participants almost rebuked the Commission's finding. It was not surprising therefore that the media world also bypassed the evidence of one Binod Kishore Das, a doctor of medicine degree holder from the US, who was a weekly visitor to Staines' leprosy home in Baripada.

Das told the Commission Staines had a great hatred for other religions, that though he would be simply dressed he lived a lavish lifestyle, that he had modern gadgets in his home and that even for a minor disease he would go to either Jamshedpur or Calcutta.

The Wadhwa Commission itself found a report of January-February 1999 containing Staines' description of the Sanatan Dharma as 'an animist sect.'

More importantly, our media completely ignored the Commission's plea for restraint in reporting on communal strife. Their reaction to the post-Godhra situation in Gujarat was ample proof of that.

The issue here is the sheer irresponsibility of the media. Whether it is Godhra, Tehelka, petrol pump allocations or the Ansal Plaza killing of terrorists, our media seems to believe it will attract its audience only if it dresses to kill, or, as some newspapers have patented, it undresses models in colour. That it is not accountable to anyone in the country except to its proprietors' profit and loss account abets that belief. No wonder the ICE World section of Business Standard dated January 29, 2003, says The Times of India charges fees to PR agencies for publishing their releases. Are we then headed for editorials charged at so many rupees per column centimetre?

Our media demands foolproof accountability from every institution in our land, including the judiciary. Why then doesn't it demand the same from itself?

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Arvind Lavakare