Given the level of misinformation surrounding the recent TOI reports about Teesta Setalvad, it might be useful to place it in perspective by putting down the sequence of events that led to the current controversy that seems to be exercising a number of readers:
How did this controversy originate?
Some news reports on April 14 alleged that "a Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team (SIT) charged a leading activist, Teesta Setalvad, with adding morbidity into the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat by “cooking up macabre tales of killings”"
What are these news reports?
There are to my knowledge two mainstream newsreports on April 14 which made these allegations about the happenings in the Supreme Court on April 13. These were in the Economic Times (ET) and the Times of India (TOI).
And in other media?
No other mainstream media, other than IBNLIVE, carried these sensational news items. The IBN report, however, specified that these allegations were not made by the SIT but by the lawyers for the Gujarat government. The difference in coverage is glaring. Take for example:
TOI: "In a significant development, the SIT led by former CBI director R K Raghavan told the Supreme Court on Monday that the celebrated rights activist cooked up macabre tales of wanton killings"
ET: "SIT headed by former CBI director RK Raghavan said “many incidents were cooked up, false witnesses were tutored to give evidence about imaginary incidents, and false charges levelled against the then Ahmedabad police chief P C Pandey”"
IBNLIVE: They [the Gujarat lawyers] said questions have been raised on the role of the NGO and its advocate Mohammed Suhail Muhammed Husain Tirmizi who helped the witnesses in filing their affidavits relating to the riot cases.
Rohatgi said the report of the SIT clearly says the NGO, which had made the allegations against the BJP government, had given stereotype affidavits in almost all riot cases.
And what about those against whom these charges were made?
The CJP responded with their own statement rebutting these charges and pointed out inter alia:
The report in sections of the national media dated April 14, 2009, alleging that NGOs, Teesta etc misled the apex court and exaggerated the violence in Gujarat in 2002 are clear example of irresponsible reportage. Intentionally or otherwise, the distorted report damages the reputation of a citizens’ group that has been recognized nationally and internationally for working assiduously to ensure justice to the victims of mass violence whether in case of the Gujarat carnage (2002), or the bomb blasts in Mumbai (2006 and 2008) or the communal carnage in Kandhamal district, Orissa (2008), irrespective of the caste or creed of the victims or the perpetrators.
The fact is that neither Sri Raghavan, nor any other SIT member was present at the apex court to “tell” it anything. These reports could only be referring to a contention made in a four page note circulated by Ms Hemantika Wahi for the Gujarat Government.. It was not a note prepared by SIT.
The detailed report of SIT submitted to the Supreme Court on March 6, 2007 has not been available for study either to National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the petitioners in this case, or the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) who have intervened in this critical matter or to any in the media. Any reference to it is hence hearsay and it may amount to contempt of court to write about a report which the Court has specifically not made public.
Did the media concerned address these charges?
Dhananjay Mahapatra responded to the CJP response in Times of India on April 16: 'Report based on SIT findings'
My report was based on the SIT report and not any document circulated by the Gujarat government, as suggested by CJP. Whether any section of the media has the report or not is irrelevant as TOI has access to the report.
And it concluded by saying:
In short, my report was based on the actual SIT report. The excerpts from it should prove this beyond doubt.
So has the TOI journalist proved beyond doubt, as many seem to believe, that "the SIT led by former CBI director R K Raghavan told the Supreme Court on Monday that the celebrated rights activist cooked up macabre tales of wanton killings"?
Far from it. The only thing this report proves beyond doubt is that the ET and TOI reports of April 14 were misleading, to say the least.
Let's clarify: We did not need such an elaborate response. The controversy would have been over if only page numbers could be provided for two quotes in the first two paragraphs of the ET report of April 14
: “cooking up macabre tales of killings” and “many incidents were cooked up, false witnesses were tutored to give evidence about imaginary incidents, and false charges levelled against the then Ahmedabad police chief P C Pandey”
TOI's April 16 report in fact raises far many more questions than it answers. While prima facie it does offer direct quotes from what it calls the SIT report, with reference to page numbers, it is not clear what credence to give them. In addition to the above, for example, it does not even bother to allude to the sensational charges in its April 14 report:
The SIT also found no truth in the following incidents widely publicised by the NGOs:
* A pregnant Muslim woman Kausar Banu was gangraped by a mob, who then gouged out the foetus with sharp weapons
* Dumping of dead bodies into a well by rioteers at Naroda Patiya
* Police botching up investigation into the killing of British nationals, who were on a visit to Gujarat and unfortunately got caught in the riots
The essence of the report was "cooking up macabre tales of killing", but TOI's April 16 report instead sent us on a different wildgoose chase with page numbers quoted to buttress its claims. But all that it effectively talks about is “contradictory statements” and “discrepancies” in witness accounts. Ironically, the answer to these is perhaps available in the April 14 report itself as it quoted the SC as saying, "In riot cases, the more the delay, there is likelihood of falsity creeping in."
Actually, even those "contradictory statements" and "discrepancies" are worth going into (many contradictions and discrepancies can be pointed in Mahapatra's own two versions -- starting with the number of witnesses), and it would indeed be instructive to ascertain what may have led to them, but given how the April 14 reports ended up, one should perhaps insist on an answer to the obvious question first: If the SIT report is available, and if that indeed is the basis for the April 14 reports-- in both ET and TOI as claimed -- why not substantiate the charges made? Sensational allegations are made in one report, then the veracity of the report is asserted by quoting not from the pages that allegedly contain those sensational charges but a whole lot of other pages about discrepancies in witness accounts
All of this raises serious questions about media reportage and editorial responsibility. When a journalist of a respectable paper like TOI or ET puts words in quotes, what does that mean? And when a subsequent report blusters that its controversial earlier report was indeed based on the SIT report, why does it not even allude to those sensational claims anymore, leave alone substantiating them? It is too grim a subject to even get into a speculation about what indeed might be responsible for these stories -- or what indeed was 'cooked up' and by whom.
I hold no brief for Teesta Setalvad or anyone else, and if indeed there are charges against her or anyone else in the SIT report, the Supreme Court would obviously know what prosecution to launch and it should obviously be made public and discussed, but what are we to do with the ET and TOI reports of April 14 and 16?
Also, since the quotes and page numbers in the April 16 report clearly do not seem to have been the basis of the April 14 reports, it is fair to question where they may suddenly have sprung up from. Since the SC did not even allow quoting of the SIT report in court, it would be useful to speculate on the origin of these quotes. Could they too have come from some of the lawyers with access to them? Are they selectively leaking information? Given how muddied the whole issue has become, could we now please demand that the SIT report be made public in its entirety so that the facts are clear to all?
Update: Dilip D'Souza: About Warped Minds