New Delhi: When eight undertrials were shot dead in Madhya Pradesh on Monday, the media sat up and took notice. As it should have had. But then, somewhere down the line, a section of the media dropped the ball.
The coverage started early, with the news of the eight alleged members of Students Islamic Movement of India killing a guard at Bhopal Central Jail and fleeing. Soon, there was news about a police team on hot pursuit who tracked them down to a forested area quite a few kilometres away from the jail and shot them in an ‘encounter’.
By evening, however, there were video clips and reports floating around that suggested the encounter was staged (something that isn’t uncommon in India).
Soon social media was abuzz with whether it was an encounter, a staged encounter. By the time for ‘Prime Time News’ there was enough masala for the day with claims and counter-claims by political parties.
Needless to say the media was excited, as it should be. But what many seemed to have forgotten was who the eight were. Either that, or this section of the media chose to shrug off their journalistic responsibility to align with a narrative offered by the State.
The octet shot dead were UNDER TRIAL. None of them were convicted of crime. They faced serious charges – murder, robbery, sedition, jailbreak and they allegedly belonged to SIMI, a banned organisation. But all that didn’t make them criminals, for they were not convicted. But a section of the media has declared them ‘terrorists’.
Now, the job of a journalist is undoubtedly a high-pressure one and lapses are understandable. Some initial errors are understandable as not all information was available. But even if those were mistakes, many media houses left them uncorrected. As a result several newspapers went to print proclaiming the dead as ‘aatankis‘ (terrorists).
Leading the pack is Dainik Jagran, a brand which takes pride in being the ‘world’s largest-read newspaper’. ‘Eight terrorists who fled Bhopal jail killed’ read its headline, plastered across six of its seven columns. A double-column space on the right hand was made into a gallery for short bios of ‘The terrorists who were killed’.
Not to be left behind, Dainik Bhaskar (which would like you to believe you read the most-trustworthy and ‘No.1′ newspaper,) has this to say: ‘In 8 hours police and ATS kills all terrorists and take revenge’
Not to be left behind, Dainik Bhaskar (which would like you to believe you read the most-trustworthy and ‘No.1’ newspaper,) has this to say: ‘In 8 hours police and ATS kills all terrorists and take revenge.’
It claimed this was the first such instance of ‘terrorists’ being killed in such short time after taking to their heels.
The front page of Dainik Bhaskar.
Amar Ujala, which sells in all northern states, wrote: ‘Eight terrorists who fled Bhopal jail by slitting the throat of the guard killed in encounter.’
It continued using the term ‘terrorists’ subsequently.
Only Navbharat Times stood out among the top newspapers.
The problem was not with Hindi dailies alone. Anandabazar Patrika, the leading Bangla newspaper, had a headline across seven of its eight columns: ‘The mystery killing of 8 jailbreaking militants.’
According to rival Bartaman: ‘Eight SIMI jailbreaking militants finished’.
Though Times of India and its Hindi counterpart Navbharat Times remained careful, the house’s Bengali daily Ei Samay stuck to the ‘militant’ narrative.
Asomiya Pratidin, a well-read Assamese daily said: ‘Eight SIMI terrorists who fled jail shot dead’.
Words have meanings. The least we can do is to stick to facts in reportage. Undertrials is NOT the same as convicted, leave alone terrorists
— Sushant Singh (@SushantSin) October 31, 2016
Once again, it is possible that high-pressure newsrooms led to such lapses. But it would perhaps be unwise to look at this as a mere lapse in symantics. A disturbing question niggle around: Are many of our journalists already sold on government versions?