Backstory: When a Press Conference Becomes the Story in UP’s Badlands

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

After the two bodies of mafia dons Atiq Ahmed and Arshad Ahmed, crumbled to the ground and the UP police led the three young assassins away amidst their chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ – all on live television – it was left to the rest of us to assemble the pieces of this extraordinary tableau in our minds.

Had we just witnessed the media become an accessory to the crime of extra-judicial killing?

Had the Godi Media become the Goli Media, a remarkably perceptive observation attributed to senior commentator John Dayal?

The media, especially television media, had been in relentless pursuit of Atiq Ahmed in the manner of a blood sport. Even as the dreaded mafia don was being transported on court orders from his cell in Sabarmati, Gujarat, to Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, on March 26, scrums of mediapersons followed him every inch of the way. Their coverage touched such stratospheric heights of absurdity that even the man’s bathroom breaks were faithfully captured by the eager camera lens.

All this was in the anticipation that somewhere along the way the man would, in common journalese, be simply “encountered”. No one wanted to miss that “breaking news” moment when the vehicle in which he was being ferried would somehow nosedive into a ditch and end up in Atiq Ahmed’s elimination, just as it had in the case of Vikas Dubey, another mafia don, in 2020. 

Clearly, the media’s investment in this story was not driven by their moral objections to the thok do (cudgel them) modus operandi, refined to a fine art by Uttar Pradesh saffron-clad supremo, Adityanath. Far from that. In fact it may have been prompted by their great support for Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister who is a valued benefactor of television channels.

According to an RTI enquiry, between April 2020 and March 2021, the UP government had lavished Rs 160.31 crore on ads for TV news companies. So what was there not to love about Adityanath, dispenser of butter (and jam) as well as rough, ready and saffronised methods of ensuring “law and order”? This mad media pursuit of Atiq Ahmed was also ultimately about glorifying the chief minister and adding to his social and political capital as the guarantor of a “crime free” Uttar Pradesh.  

To confirm this you just have to watch Navika Kumar’s Hindi chat show, ‘Sawal Public Ka (the public’s question)’ which was conducted earlier in April. Amidst her scripted taunts against Atiq Ahmed – very easy to dispense given the man’s charnel house-like legacy in crime – were encomiums for Adityanath’s model of mafia encounters which are subtly sold as a “hit with the public”.

The Atiq Ahmed “encounter”, as it turned out, did not happen during that long road trip from Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh.

There were TRP-friendly twists and turns to the story. First there was the manner in which his son and associate were “encountered” on April 14. Shortly, thereafter, on April 15, there was that “press conference” held on a public Prayagraj road long after nightfall in which the assassins came as “journalists” (‘Atiq Ahmed, Brother Shot Dead While Speaking to Reporters in UP, Section 144 in Prayagraj’, April 16).

As The Wire analysis put it, “People watched the entire episode of the chilling murders on television. Real time. A rare treat. TV newsreaders kept showing this murder again and again and in a frenzied voice, kept analysing each frame. TV channels were very careful about their duty to ensure that all the viewers did not miss the excitement of the murders. The fun of showing ‘live murder’ is something else!” (‘Killing the Rule of Law: Shooting the Indian Republic from Behind’, April 16).

How did the journalists covering this press conference know that these two dread dons were being escorted on foot to the hospital for “medical”?  How did the assassins posing as journalists learn about this impromptu press conference without the police informing them about it? The local media is more than happy to leave those mysteries of that night in the competent hands of the UP police to “solve”. 

But it is not just the local media. Many powerful actors in the national media were completely satisfied with the manner in which Atiq and Arshad Ahmed were eliminated. I listened open-mouthed to Gaurav Sawant hold forth in what was perhaps the first televised discussion on the killings on the India Today platform. He launched into a long harangue about how “due process of law will ascertain where this was a genuine encounter or a fake one” but he was opposed to terming every encounter fake and had some harsh words for “professional breast beaters who come out and cast aspersions (on such encounters) based on the religion of the victim.”

Such an analysis, when the case being discussed was the shooting down at point blank range two shackled prisoners under the custody of the police, by a third party, indicates just how far many in the media will go to justify police conduct that fails every civilisational norm and the political system that breeds such impunity. 

It does not need a “breast beater” to object to such repugnant developments, just an ordinary citizen anxious to prevent the country from tilting into institutionalised bestiality will do.


“Chup Raho” Media!

A great interview with the right subject can sometimes prove more incisive than a detailed investigation into issues of national interest and public concern. It helps of course that the interviewer, Karan Thapar, has justifiably earned a reputation for being India’s most effective interlocutors, with his rapier-sharp, no-holds-barred, dogged line of questioning.

The 2007 interrogation he had conducted with Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, has now assumed the status of legend. It reduced a man, never found wanting in words, to desperately ask for a glass of water midway through the session, and then beat a quick retreat from the scene. It is said that this interview convinced Modi to never again submit himself to unvetted questions, which may also explain his strange resistance to open press conferences that his office as prime minister mandates.

In journalism school, one is told to keep the hard questions for later, until the subject has been suitably put at ease and is not on his or her guard. In the Satya Pal Malik interview, Thapar did not follow this rule. Neither did he allow his gratitude to the former governor for granting him an interview deter him from going straight to a very uncomfortable preliminary question: why did Malik dissolve the suspended state assembly three months after his appointment as governor of Jammu and Kashmir, despite Mehbooba Mufti trying to convey to him that she had majority support and could head a viable government. Malik danced around the question and failed to provide a convincing answer. The reader gets the feeling that Malik is being economical with the truth, just by following the pattern of questions and answers (Pulwama, Modi, Corruption: Full Explosive Transcript of Satya Pal Malik’s Viral Interview, April 16).  

On Pulwama, perhaps to compensate for his lack of forthrightness on the Mufti question, Malik goes the extra mile and offers information he never put out in the public domain earlier, even in the interview he gave to Prashant Tandon which appeared on Deshbandhu Dialogue.

Not only did he reveal that the Prime Minister, when he learnt about Pulwama from Malik, had told him to keep quiet on the subject; Malik also divulged the fact that Ajit Doval had instructed him to keep his mouth shut on the issue as well.

Incidentally, to digress a bit, there was criticism that Thapar, whose interview came out on April 14, had not credited Tandon for having got Malik to speak out about the Pulwama failures in an interview he had conducted with the former governor on April 8. In my view, while it would of course have been better if Tandon had been named, I do not see it as malice on Thapar’s part or desire for upmanship. If that were the case, he would not have referenced the Tandon interview several times in the course of his conversation with Malik. The transcript of the interview carried in The Wire subsequently has rectified this omission.

The iron curtain with which the Modi government has ring-fenced the media from news of great national concern that are inimical to interests of the prime minister and his party, ensured that it did not become the issue of the day, in the way the Bofors revelations had in the late 1980s. In fact, it was met by a pregnant pause from the day it was published and a contributor to The Wire poses an important question: “Can this abject surrender of the media be happening without a gag order in place? Think.” (‘The Gory Tale of Two Carnages, Four Years Apart’, April 21). 

Among those who bothered to carry reports on it the following day were The Telegraph and Deccan Herald. It took two days for The Indian Express to put out the story. The Hindu was relatively prompt you could say, but its first story on the issue, which came out on the April 15, focused on BJP IT Cell Head Amit Malviya thrashing the information contained in the interview. To know what that information was, readers had to wait until the 16th. Both The Times of India and The Hindustan Times reported around the story rather than on it. On the 18th, Business Standard carried the story along with a sharp editorial that observed, “It is notable that much of the mainstream press, with honourable exceptions, chose to ignore the interview, an indication perhaps of the depth of self-censorship that the media has chosen to impose on itself.”  

Soon the story was allowed to fade from public memory.

The Deccan Herald was among the few who kept the pressure on, urging the government on April 20 to respond to Malik’s charges that the Union home ministry had refused the request from the Central Reserve Police Force to transport its personnel by air to Srinagar.

Newslaundry did a creditable recee of the media’s self-censorship (‘Business Std says media, with ‘honourable exceptions’, skipped Satya Pal Malik. We checked ‘Sensational, yes. But page 1 news? Not quite’, April 18). 

Alt News did one better and called out all those mighty anchors who, night in and night out, preach from the security pulpit, and who now maintained a radio silence on this interview. Alt News observed: “Retired military officers and self-proclaimed defence experts regularly participate in these shows. Regular among them are Major General (retired) GD Bakshi who served in Kashmir for several years and is a Kargil War veteran, Major (retired) Gaurav Arya, Colonel (retired) RSN Singh et al. Not a single mainstream channel, however, did a debate on Satya Pal Malik’s accusations of intelligence failure in the context of one of the deadliest terror attacks on Indian soil.”

Understanding this deliberate airbrushing is important because it helps in understanding that the “national security” which channels scream about is finally only about the electoral security of the prime minister and his party.

 Press Council’s counsel on ‘paid news’

Electioneering in Karnataka is on in full swing, and the state election of May 10 is regarded as a make-or-break moment for the three biggies in the fray – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress (INC) and the Janata Dal Secular (JDS). The one aspect of this election that has emerged clearly enough is the decisive role being played by money power channeled into the system in a million different ways. 

The Press Council’s recent counsel to the media on paid news has therefore not come a day too soon. How is paid news to be discerned? Signals of dodgy reporting during elections are many: reports that appear to predict the results prematurely; profile the caste identity of voters; favour a particular party or candidate; project candidates before they have filed their nominations, all these practices flag the high likelihood of paid news doing the rounds. 

A blatant giveaway of paid news is when two or more publications or news channels put out strikingly similar content.

That was how Ashok Chavan of the INC was caught out by P. Sainath, who was then with The Hindu, during the Maharashtra polls of 2009. As Sainath pointed out subsequently, the media of the day were even offering packages with services ranging from bombing out a rival to dawn-to-dusk coverage. In Chavan’s case he managed some really fulsome headlines like ‘Era of Ashok’ in high-profile newspapers like Lokmat. Despite Sainath’s intrepid work; strictures issued by the Election Commission and a Press Council instituted report written by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy which came out in 2010, the paid news model was too big to fail. It continues to be, to a lesser or greater extent, part of the media’s coverage of elections. 


Burning questions on the Atiq assassination

A response to the gunning down of Atiq and Ashraf Ahmed by a reader which came in shortly after the news broke…

Bizarre. I don’t see any newspaper asking any useful questions despite all having seen the video clip.

Odd that there was no vetting of the media.

Odd that they headed out at 8.02pm at night (so one journalist maintains).

Odd that they were not taken in an ambulance right into the hospital.

Odd that they seemed to have outsize protection (for show it seems).

Odd that their counsel Vijay Misra (?) didn’t mention any complaint about physical discomfort by the brothers. This was described as routine. How so?

Odd that the brothers’ counsel, Vijay Misra, after the shooting appeared over eager to show the police had done the job and could not shoot on account of the ‘chaos created’. 

Odd that the protective detail didn’t fire or unholster any weapon. I counted almost 9 to 12 shots fired over a span of a few seconds. The police in close proximity to the assailants had automatic weapons. The assailant overpowered on the ground shows two policemen with automatic weapons. Not a single shot was fired in all this by any policeman it appears. And the three assailants shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ are led away in the most courteous and compassionate manner. They are not beaten or whacked as would have been the case were the police at all shamed. In other instances, armed attackers are done away with in no time at all. 

Odd the reason given is the three assailants wanted to achieve fame? This is the nuttiest of excuses ever. They know a public shooting like this would send them to the gallows if not in for life. How then would they become dons? 

And no pertinent questions being asked by any media who are just lapping up the police version. Even independents seem to have no fire in the belly for this one.

No one has quizzed the actual journalists who were present in any detail.

This seems a knock-off of the Ahmad Shah Massoud Northern Alliance Afghan killing when TV reporters got in for an interview. That of course was real.

The whole business smacks of premeditation. It would be laughable were it not such a blatant show of lawlessness in a morally bankrupt state.”


Report on UP’s health profile

A reader, Ashish Pandey, wants The Wire to get on with showing the real state of health care in Uttar Pradesh:

“I request you kindly show the real image of the area where G20 is going to be held in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Just visit the biggest hospitals of that city (Varanasi) or any other city of that province. Except for Lucknow, which is the capital, and Noida, which is attached to India’s capital city of Delhi, the real health and medical situation in this state (which happens to be the most populated one in India) is extremely poor. I am not against any government. I just want you to show the poor health condition of this state which has been ignored by all governments over decades, in the hope that such coverage would prod its government to do something  about setting things right and getting other states across the country to pay more attention to healthcare.”

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