GAURI LANKESH writes from Bangalore: Recently, three young men were arrested in Hubli and Honnali towns in the southern Indian state of Karnataka on charges of vehicle theft. Since all of them happened to belong to the Muslim community, within a day of their arrests, police sources leaked to the media that they suspected the trio might be involved in planning terrorist attacks all over the country.
This was enough to trigger a series of speculative stories in the State’s media. Every publication and television channel, without exception, went into a competitive frenzy, all of them clamouring for a first shot at the most ‘horrifying’ story about the ‘terrorist trio’.
Almost every reporter with imaginative talent wrote reams of articles quoting unnamed ‘reliable police sources’ or ‘police sources who did not want to be named’ and narrated how the three young men were planning to blow to smithereens most of Karnataka’s key buildings, such as the Vidhana Soudha, place bombs on (predictably) the premises of IT giants Infosys and IBM, detonate bombs in public places, destroy Hindu places of worship and so on.
What was remarkable about these reports was their contention that the three young men had links right up to Osama bin Laden and down to the local ’sleeper cells’ of various outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The men were also suspected of conducting arms training in nearby forests, of flying the Pakistani flag, of possessing RDX, of having already distributed arms and weapons to various ‘sleeper cells’ across the state, of recruiting hundreds of youth to terrorist organisations, of possessing AK-47s, of having procured Israeli manufactured arms, etc, etc, etc.
But how much of the content of these reports, well laced with the terms ’suspected’ and ‘alleged’, had unsubstantiated and un-sourced ‘facts’ attributed to ‘reliable sources’?
As citizens and discerning readers, can we merely accept in good faith that these reports were genuine?
How much of the information carried (leaked) in these reports was a product of the imaginative powers of local reporters? How much was fed by our increasingly inefficient police force? How much was ’spiced’ up by senior journalists who are forever looking to increase their TRP ratings or circulation figures?
Having already said that all these reports on the ‘terrorist trio’, without exception, were sourced to ‘police officials who did not want to be named’, let us look at one such report to assess how genuine the overall media reports were.
The Mangalore edition of the Kannada daily Udayavani, which adopts a marked pro-Hindutva stance, carried a front-page report that read: “last December Riazuddin Ghouse, Mohammed Asif, Mohammad Abubakkar and Hafeez held a secret meeting where they condemned America’s treatment of people imprisoned at Cuba’s Montessori (!) jail. A copy of the resolutions taken at the meeting has been seized by investigating officers.”
Udayavani is a leading Kannada daily with several senior journalists on its rolls. What is surprising is that not one of them could tell the difference between the word Montessori, used to describe a system of education, and Guantánamo Bay, the name of the prison run by the American government in Cuba. Apparently, in the race for ‘exclusive’ reports, none of them could be bothered with such minor factual details.
Even if one were willing to overlook this rather glaring slip-up by the reporter who filed the story and the senior journalists who okayed it, giving it prime space on the front page, other important questions remain. For example, since when has condemning American atrocities at Guantánamo Bay become a crime? Does this assumption by the police mean that anyone who condemns the unjust imprisonment of people at Guantánamo Bay is a terror suspect?
Are such questions of no importance to the local media?
Apparently not, for instead of raising these valid and significant issues, they carried on blissfully with their ‘exclusive reportage’ based entirely on police sources.
One report, which appeared in The Hindu, can be summed up thus: The fact that one of the arrested youth claimed before the magistrate that his human rights had been violated by the police made the magistrate suspect that he was no ordinary youth. (Does this mean that knowledge of the Constitution, fundamental rights and human rights are not for ordinary Indian men and women?) On the basis of this assumption, the magistrate instructed the police to subject him to a thorough interrogation. And that was when the terrorist links were revealed.
Another report, this one in The Times of India, stated: A warden at the jail became suspicious of Riazuddin Ghouse and Mohammad Abubakkar’s behaviour in the prison where they were jailed on charges of vehicle theft. The duo spoke to each other in low voices, did namaaz five times a day, spoke to one another in English and did not seem to show respect for the national flag when it was hoisted in the morning.
The jail warden conveyed his suspicions to senior police officials and they subjected the duo to interrogation. That was when the youth spilled the beans about their terrorist plans. Had the warden not been such a keen observer of their behaviour the men could well have been let off by the police.
These reports raise a few fundamental questions. Since when has it become a crime to speak of human rights violations? Or speak in a low voice? Or communicate in English? Since when has offering namaaz five times a day become a suspect activity?
As if this were not enough, most or all of the media reported that “religious books and material” were found in the trio’s possession. The media also ‘arrested’ a number of students in its reports even when the police had not in fact done so! Reporters also labelled as “having terrorist links” people who were total strangers to the arrested trio. The list is endless. The end result of all this ‘hyperactivity’ in the media was that the three arrested men were depicted as the most dreaded terrorists this part of the world has seen in recent times.
This reportage took place even as a senior police officer, additional director-general of police Shankar Bidri, told a television channel:
“So far no proof has been unearthed to label these youths as terrorists. The media is indulging in blatant fabrication of news. What if their case too turns out to be another Dr Mohammed Haneef case? (Haneef, who worked in Australia, was mistakenly arrested by the Australian police after being wrongly accused of links to a failed UK terror plot.) Let us not turn into terrorists those who are innocent.”
Sadly, his words of caution fell on deaf ears as the media made merry about Muslim terrorists.
Surely the police need to interrogate the arrested youth and the courts have to pass their judgements before such serious conclusions are drawn? This is why such institutions exist, why the machinery exists in our democracy. It is their job to catch and punish the guilty. But the media seemed to have no time for such ‘niceties’ of democracy or its institutions. It chose to sidestep the process of law altogether and took it upon itself to ‘investigate’ the so-called crime and then pronounced ‘judgement’.
(Gauri Lankesh edits an eponymous weekly in Bangalore. A fuller version of this article appears on churumuri.com)