The Media And December 13

We have a right to know who actually attacked our Parliament. Why have we not made this demand? Out of a sense of nationalism? Are matters of national security best left to the state, no matter what its character?

The Media And December 13

In a recent article on the Parliament attack case, the lawyer-activist Nandita Haksar has raised the following issue: "We must demand that the government table a full report on the facts relating to the attack on Parliament. We have a right to know who actually attacked our Parliament. Why have we not made this demand? Out of a sense of nationalism? Are matters of national security best left to the state, no matter what its character?"

The point to note is that Haksar, who has been closely associated with the Parliament attack case since the beginning, has reasons to believe, two years later, that we do not know "who actually attacked our Parliament." Moreover, according to Haksar, this historical question has basically remained unasked.

Haksar's phrase "a sense of nationalism" explains this failure of probity on a national scale. She points out that "(n)o one questioned the government's story that the attack was the handiwork of Pakistan-based terrorists belonging to the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad." This is because the "media, in a willing suspension of disbelief, published whatever the police and investigating agencies put out." Having swallowed the stories put out by the media, "the public no longer felt the need for a 'judicial trial' … where was the need for formal proof." Even institutions explicitly designed to uphold the norms of democracy acted virtually in complicity with the state: the National Human Rights Commission and the political parties - "committed to democratic and secular values of our Constitution" - failed to play their role as watchdogs of basic rights. "All this in the name of nationalism." 

In contrast, there is respectable opinion that upholding of civil and human rights against all odds is the "best prophylactics" for upholding sovereignty and national security. As Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, put it: "(We) should all be clear that there is no trade-off between effective action against terrorism and the protection of human rights. On the contrary, I believe that in the long term we shall find that human rights, along with democracy and social justice, are one of the best prophylactics against terrorism." Similarly, Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged states "to ensure that any measures restricting human rights in response to terrorism strike a fair balance between legitimate national security concerns and fundamental freedoms that is fully consistent with their international law commitments."

Haksar's point about "nationalism" may be understood with the following example. It is well-known that the media in India gave full support to the US invasion of Afghanistan; television channels actually designed "war rooms" from where the daily bombings and other atrocities were gleefully covered. But this did not prevent democratic and anti-imperialist individuals and groups, including the parties of the official left, from joining the rest of the world in impressive anti-war demonstrations despite almost total blackout of these events by the media. Dozens of writer-activists simply shifted to alternative media to express their anger with the US. Many authors protested against the abject violations of human rights in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay.

In fact, these anti-war protests continued well into the period in which all democratic voices fell silent when it came to the Parliament attack case. The only explanation is that the US, after all, is a state distinct from ours; so, it is easy to condemn the US. However, when a terrorist attack is perceived to be directed against "our nation," universal democratic norms are forfeited in favour of concerns about "sovereignty" and "national security."

No wonder the handful of individuals, such as Nandita Haksar and other courageous lawyers and human rights activists, who stood up against the wall of silence, were often branded as terrorists and foreign collaborators. When the death sentences were announced by the Sessions Court in December, 2002, V. K. Malhotra, the spokesperson of the BJP, recommended punishment under POTA for those who had opposed the death sentence on the grounds that they were agents of Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. 

After the High Court acquitted S. A. R. Geelani and Afsan Guru from all charges, an editorial in a prominent newspaper stated: "In this context, the unconcealed glee with which some of this country's self-proclaimed champions of human rights have reacted to the acquittals leaves a foul taste in the mouth. One wonders what matters most to them, the security and the integrity of the country or the well-being of people accused of undermining both." Notice that the editorial continues to accuse Geelani and Afsan Guru libelously of "undermining" the security and the integrity of the country after they were acquitted by the court. The same newspaper had much else to say about "Human Rightswalas" that are essentially unprintable.

Willing suspension of disbelief

As Haksar notes, the "sense of nationalism" propelled even the liberal-democratic sections of the intelligentsia, not to speak of the general public, into believing what the media projected as the truth within a week of the attack. In that sense, the complicity of the media with the police converged with "nationalist" sentiments: in fact, the media may be viewed as fuelling them. A survey of the role of the media is needed at this point to examine the issue to understand how exactly the suggested "complicity" works. We restrict our attention only to some samples from the print media - essentially, national English dailies, with one exception with which we begin.

The media coverage of S.A.R. Geelani's role in the attack is particularly revealing. The prosecution's case against him was at best "absurd and tragic," and, as it turned out, the High Court acquitted him from all charges with adverse remarks that could not have been pleasing to the police. However, after his arrest on 15 December 2001 (14 December, according to Geelani) leading national newspapers reported on him in impressive detail within two days.

Sujit Thakur of Rashtriya Sahara captioned his Hindi write-up of 17 December 2001 GEELANI SOWED THE SEEDS OF TERRORISM FROM ALIGARH TO ENGLAND. Citing police sources, Thakur reported that, from what Geelani had "disclosed," it was "clear" that the Jaish-e-Mohammad had an elaborate plan of securing the support of the intelligentsia around the world; Geelani was assigned this task for India. To that end, he contacted students and teachers in several colleges and universities in India and abroad, including Aligarh Muslim University and the London School of Economics. In fact, Geelani was in close touch with a dreaded terrorist called "Ahmad Umar Saeed Sheikh" who was a student of LSE and was linked to the hijacking of IC-814. However, the police failed to list these very specific charges in the chargesheet. In any case, Geelani never disclosed anything or confessed to anything, although he was forced to sign on some blank sheets. Apart from police "sources," the only other evidence Thakur cited for the preceding portrait of Geelani is that (a) he had said to have watched a film titled "Destruction of a Nation" several times, and (b) he had read a book on the assassination of John F. Kennedy titled "Portrait of an Assassin." Thakur failed to cite the sources from which he gathered these facts.

Sutirtho Patranobis of The Hindusthan Times titled his piece of 17 December 2001 DON LECTURED ON TERROR IN FREE TIME. Patranobis wrote his piece after an interview with the Principal of Zakir Hussain College where Geelani teaches Arabic. Throughout the interview the Principal made only nice remarks on Geelani: "a seven member team has selected him after going through his academic records and interviewing him," "students liked him," "seldom took very long leaves," "I have also not heard any colleague complain about his behaviour," "mixed around as any other professor," "nothing extraordinary in his character," etc. However, without citing any source at all, Patranobis concluded his piece with the following words: "In his free time, behind closed doors, either at his house or at ShaukatHussain's, another suspect to be arrested, he took and gave lessons on terrorism." This is of course what the police claimed in their briefings to justify Geelani's arrest.

Devesh K. Pandey of The Hindu began his piece of 17 December 2001 with the heading VARSITY DON GUIDED 'FIDAYEEN'. As with the other reporters cited above and below, Pandey dispensed with routine qualifiers such as "allegedly" or "believed to have" or "reportedly," to assert that three of the four persons who supplied logistic support and provided a safe haven to the five 'fidayeen' studied at the prestigious Delhi University, one of whom turned out to be a highly qualified lecturer. Geelani had "disclosed" that he was in the know of the conspiracy since the day the 'fidayeen' attack was planned. Pandey could report this with confidence because, according to him, "intelligence agencies had been tapping Geelani's telephone for sometime as he had contacts in Pakistan." Unfortunately, the "intelligence agencies" failed to submit the tapped conversations as evidence before the court.

Rajnish Sharma of The Hindusthan Times, 17 December 2001, reported on HUNT FOR TEACHER'S PET IN JUBILEE HALL. Exploring Geelani's "international contacts," Sharma learnt about a Jordanian doctoral student of Delhi University in Astrophysics who knew Geelani. Sharma reports that they spent long hours together; also, lengthy phone-calls were made to West Asia from booths located in the Delhi University campus. In a box situated in the middle of his write-up, Sharma listed PROFESSOR'S PROCEEDS in a suggested deductive chain: Geelani recently purchased a house for Rs. 22 lakhs in West Delhi; Delhi police are investigating how he came upon such a windfall; the terrorists who planned the operation were flush with funds; before carrying out the attack on Parliament, the terrorists had sent back to Srinagar Rs. 10 lakhs of unspent money and a laptop. Sharma failed to mention the address of the house purchased by Geelani; also, the report does not carry either a photograph of the house or a copy of the sale-deed. In subsequent coverage, Sharma failed to follow up on the police investigation into the "windfall." Both Nandita Haksar and Basharat Peer reported on the difficulties faced by Geelani's family in finding even modest rentedaccommodation in Delhi. Mohammad Abdullah, Geelani's father-in-law said, "A news report said Geelani bought a house worth 22 lakhs. If someone can find the house the family can move there in these difficult times." All this was reported within two days after the arrests, as noted.

Parade before the press

The media coverage reached newer heights with the dramatic event on 20 December 2001, exactly a week after the attack. On that day, the investigating officer in charge of the case, ACP Rajbir Singh, organized a press meet. In that meet, only one of the accused, Mohammad Afzal, was "brazenly paraded before the press." By then, Afzal was projected by the police as the principal link between Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba commanders in Kashmir and the terrorist operation in Delhi. During the parade, Afzal admitted to his active participation in the conspiracy. In what follows, we will not discuss the credibility of this "confession" since it had no legal validity; it was meant only for public consumption. We focus only on the media's role in this sordid affair.

Commenting on the incident, the Amnesty International wrote that "parading accused before national media during which they are made to incriminate themselves violates their right to be presumed innocent until convicted according to law in the course of fair proceedings and their right not to be compelled to testify against themselves or to confess guilt. These rights are provided in Articles 14(2) and 14 (3) (g) of the ICCPR respectively." These are well established norms that the media in a democratic set up are likely to know and follow. In that sense, the fact that the police allowed this meet to take place at all should have been of major concern to the media. But the media not only asked for it, they attended and reported the interview en masse.

In the interview, although Afzal admitted to his involvement in the crime, he categorically exonerated Geelani from any involvement. In full view of the assembledpress, the investigating officer ACP Rajbir Singh reprimanded Afzal for mentioning Geelani despite his orders to the contrary. The ACP then asked the press not to report Afzal's exoneration of Geelani. The whole thing was recorded on videotape which was submitted as evidence in the court by the defense.

By any measure, this was big news. The "varsity don" who "sowed the seeds of terrorism from Aligarh to England" and who "guided the 'fidayeen'" was exonerated from any involvement in the attack by the self-confessed principal operator in custody. It follows either that Afzal's admission before the media was worthless if false, or, that the police (and the media) stories about Geelani's involvement handed out for the past week were false if the admission was true. Moreover, Rajbir Singh's reprimand to Afzal suggested that Afzal's "confession" could have been dictated by the police. Why should the police take this recourse unless at least parts of the case against Afzal were fabricated? Finally, Rajbir Singh's "request" to the press not to make Afzal's statement public indicated that the police was trying to use the media to propagate a possibly suspect story. In sum, large sections of the police story announced so far began to collapse with this singular utterance from Afzal.

We would expect any self-respecting media to at least pick up the issue and tell the country that something was wrong somewhere. We would have expected headlines such as AFZAL ABSOLVES GEELANI FROM ANY INVOLVEMENT and DEC. 13 CASE TURNS MURKY to dominate the front-pages the next day. The demand for a full-fledged public inquiry on the entire sequence of events, including the conduct of the police, would have been the next logical step.

Instead, the entire media, with an interesting exception discussed below, simply followed the ACP's order by suppressing the utterance. The channel Aaj Tak showed the interview with Afzal on the same evening without the utterance; the channel showed the full interview 100 days later. By then the 'truth' about the Parliament attack was firmly established in the public mind and the attention of the nation was focused on the carnage in Gujarat. However, the chargesheet was still two months away. An alert media, including Aaj Tak itself, could have pounced upon the unedited tape, and highlighted the momentous utterance with the disturbing implications that follow from it. Needless to say, the entire matter was shelved in silence until the defence brought it up in the court many months later. Reportedly, one of the journalists covering the case justified his silence on the ground that he could not afford to disobey Rajbir Singh as the ACP was a "very good" source of police information.

The reports that appeared on the next day, 21 December 2001, continued the tirades against Geelani. Under the title TERROR SUSPECT FREQUENT VISITOR TO PAK MISSION, Swati Chaturvedi of The Hindustan Times cited "authoritative sources" to report that Geelani hadvisited the High Commission of Pakistan on two different social gatherings: an iftaar party and a national day celebrations. Chaturvedi failed to mention whether officials of the Indian government, politicians, film stars, journalists and prominent citizens of Delhi, including some from the academia, also attended these functions. According to Chaturvedi, a senior officer of the high commission, when contacted, had said, "we will have to go over our records," since a large number of people are invited to these occasions. As for Geelani in particular, the officer had said, "we do not know him and Pakistan has nothing to do with him." Chaturvedi found these responses "non-committal"; she also reported that the "security sources" did not "buy this argument."

In the next paragraph, Chaturvedi reverted to Geelani's (earlier) "admission" that he was in touch with militants of the Jaish-e-Mohammad based in Pakistan - the montage suggesting a reason for Geelani's "frequent" visits to the "Pak mission." However, throwing new light on the issue, Chaturvedi also reported Geelani's admission that he had been provided with funds by the Jaish to buy two flats for the militants to operate from. As it turned out later during the trial, none of the 80 prosecution witnesses ever mentioned Geelani's affiliation with any terrorist organization. Moreover, the chargesheet mentioned only Afzal and Shaukat who were allegedly responsible for renting some rooms in Delhi to be used as hideouts by the militants.

This seems to be a persistent problem with much of the reporting on this case: the AMU and the LSE connections, the house worth 22 lakhs, the two flats, the Jordanian angle, the secret meetings, the guidance to the 'fidayeen', and the like. The "information" ascribed variously to "authoritative sources," "security sources," and "intelligence agencies" was not used by these agencies themselves in subsequent proceedings. It is questionable, therefore, whether these "sources" in fact passed on such information to Chaturvedi and other reporters.

Neeta Sharma's 6-column headline report in The Hindustan Times of the same day - PAK USES FANATICS TO SPREAD TERROR IN INDIA - was placed below coloured photographs of Afzal, Shaukat and Geelani, in that order from left to right. The photographs were cumulatively captioned CONFESSION TIME, and each photograph was accompanied by some remarks apparently made by the person whose photograph it was. The artwork gave theimpression that these remarks were snippets from the confessions made by each of them individually. In reality, as noted, only Afzal talked to the media, and the official confession of Shaukat under POTA was to take place only later on the 21st itself; Geelani neither disclosed nor confessed to anything.