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Backstory: Have the Media Become Accessories to Covering up Murder?

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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“Life [had] replaced logic.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment

One of the great moral novels of all-time, Crime and Punishment, plots the trajectory of an ordinary man, who finds the act of murder abhorrent, turning into a creature filled with so much arrogance that annihilating a human life raises no scruples in him. Protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov comes to perceive the elderly woman pawnbroker he decides to kill, as a lesser being worthy only of extermination.

Are we living through one such moment when senior leaders of a party at the peak of its power, frustrated by a large, peaceful resistance of a category of people who instantly evoke general respect as growers of food, is seized by an unshakeable sense of hubris?

It has happened before.

The Shaheen Bagh protests had provoked just such a response. Remember those days in early 2020 when the BJP’s election campaign to win Delhi had reached a knife-like pitch, with the Union Home Minister demanding that people vote in such a way, “push the button with such force that the current makes the Shaheen Bagh protestors leave on February 8” (election day)?

Remember that other minister in the central government at a public election meeting pronouncing the first few words of the murderous slogan, “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro s….. ko”. A few days later, a young thug, sufficiently goaded by the hateful rhetoric, was seen wielding a gun near Shaheen Bagh.  

This time we had Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar urging people to pick up lathis and deal with the farmers “jaise ko taisa”(give as good as you get). The outrage his words caused had him withdraw the statement but the damage was done.

Meanwhile, the Union government’s newly appointed Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Kumar Mishra was equally focused about his intent in a recent public speech, “I only want to tell those people that it is time you better mend your ways…or else face me. I will mend your ways in only two minutes…I am not just a minister or an MP or an MLA” (‘Ajay Mishra, His Son and the First Signs of BJP’s Pre-Poll Cabinet Reshuffle Gamble Failing’, October 4). His son quickly removed all possible ambiguities in his father’s words in Lakhimpur Kheri, a day after Gandhi Jayanti.

A vehicle torched after violence erupted in Lakhimpur Kheri. Photo: PTI.

Today, wanted for the murder of four farmers, he tried to recklessly speed away from justice until an unequivocal order from the apex court forced him to submit to the authorities. Basic morality now demands that his father, junior colleague of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, step down until the case is decided – and the media, at least the more credible media, should keep iterating this, until it happens.

The writer of the Wire article, ‘The BJP Wants to Use Private Armies to Deal With Public Anger’, a former police officer himself, believes that these developments are an “overt manifestation of the growing frustration among members of Narendra Modi’s government and the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party at their inability to deal with surging public anger spilling onto the streets of India”. It is this, he argues, that forms the basis for the call to create private armies (“danda force”) in every district to physically confront farmers.

If this is the case, are large sections of Big Media already embedded in this “danda force”?

To answer this question let us return to Lakhimpur Kheri. Farmer leader Yogendra Yadav wore his sociologist’s hat and noted that the media’s first response to the wanton brutality there was to prevaricate (‘One more death in Lakhimpur Kheri shouldn’t go unnoticed — Indian media credibility’, The Print, October 6). The incident took place around 3 pm on October 3 and the Samyukt Kisan Morcha had put out alerts on it from 3:30 pm onward. Yet it took ANI – the government’s news voice – an hour and a half to put out a story.

It may be useful to go back to that first ANI report because it proved to be the master script for the narrative that the media amplified subsequently. The report had prominently quoted Ajay Mishra’s claim that his son was not present at the spot, “There were miscreants who attacked (BJP) workers with sticks and swords. If my son would’ve been there, he wouldn’t have come out alive.”

Several fake angles were created out of this material, with video after video circulated as “evidence”. One of them asserted that the Thar Jeep windscreen, much circled with red ink, was broken before it had hit the farmers, proving that the BJP’s SUVs had been pelted with stones and their occupants had been thrashed before they had crushed the farmers in a bid to flee. The broken windscreen turned out, in fact, to be a ray of sunlight reflected on the jeep’s windshield.

There was also a lot of attention paid to the much favoured Khalistan angle.

Rakesh Tikait’s statement that some farmers did venerate Bhindranwale led to a huge ‘we-told-you-so’ cacophony. By October 6, Khalistani agents were made to loom large over the Lakhimpur killings. CNN News18 headlined its report of October 6: ‘Khalistan Link To The Lakhimpur Incident? | Rakesh Tikait Controversial Remark On Bhindranwale’, while Zee News on the same day dug out a story of a WhatsApp Group, ostensibly set up by a Babbar Khalsa operative, before the violence. This entire narrative had emerged from the image of Bhindranwale on the tee shirt of a protestor. Unsurprisingly, the story died soon enough.

The ‘Bhindranwale’ t-shirt on the man on the left. Photo: Twitter

Murderous violence was indeed perpetrated on BJP workers, no doubt about it, and any credible media commentary needed to condemn it, even if it is argued that it was in retaliation to initial violence perpetrated on a peaceful assembly walking on a road. What, however, was truly shocking were the attempts to distort even the direction in which the farmers were facing when they were mowed down. 

Innumerable tweets, posts, television and newspaper claimed that the protestors would have been safe if they had not chosen to stand in the middle of the road in their attempts to block the vehicles. This fabrication, fortunately, was shredded by a new video which unambiguously demonstrated that the farmers were not facing the vehicles when they were hit and in fact didn’t have a clue that SUVs would land on their backs (‘Lakhimpur Kheri: ‘Video of Incident’ Goes Viral; Families Demand Autopsy Reports Before Cremation’, October 5).

The height of cynicism that marks all these deliberate cover-ups becomes apparent when such fabrications do not cease even when the death of fellow journalist, Raman Kashyap, who worked for the local Sadhna news channel, is being reported. In a searing ground report by The Wire, ‘Family’s Complaint Says Dead Reporter ‘Shot At’ For Filming VIP Convoy that Killed Farmers’ (October 5), we get glimpses of the vulnerable life of a district reporter and come to understand why Kashyap’s death was so unnecessary.  The police, instead of ensuring proper and timely first aid, took an inordinately long time to get him to a hospital.

Such crucial details did not figure in most news coverage of this death. But what was truly astounding was that the mediapersons who visited the Kashyap home in droves seemed keen to get the family to endorse their assertion that Kashyap’s death was caused by blows from lathis, implying that he was killed by the farmers. This information apparently had been shared on a common WhatsApp group they accessed for news breaks, and now they just wanted to go through the formality of getting the family to authenticate this pre-manufactured claim. To their utter disappointment, the Kashyap family members refused to cooperate in spreading this lie. They repeatedly stated that Kashyap body, which they had seen, bore no marks of having been beaten, but did have a head injury and marks of the tar from the road.

Will punishment will follow these crimes, as it did in the Raskolnikov story? The Supreme Court, while making its dissatisfaction over the manner in which the UP government and police have handled the case, asks an important question: “What is the message you are sending?”

This is a question that should also be put to the media when it parrots lines given to them by those now accused of murder. The message in fact suggests that they have become accessories to covering up a murder.

Raman Kashyap’s father, holding his two children. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire.

Facing up to Facebook

The letter ‘F’, in the apt acronym ‘FAANG’, which links the world’s best-performing technology giants (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Alphabet/Google), stands for an organisation that has captured the consciousness of the average Indian. Facebook has in this country at last count 410 million users. Its subsidiaries, WhatsApp and Instagram, have an additional 530 million and 210 million respectively. 

A few days ago, Frances Haugen, Facebook employee turned whistleblower, revealed a secret about its operations here: “There were a number of dehumanizing posts (on) Muslims. Our lack of Hindu (Hindi) and Bengali classifiers means much of the content is never flagged or actioned, and we have yet to put forth a nomination for designation of the group (RSS) given political sensitivities.”

Also read: RSS, West Bengal and Duplicate Accounts: What the Facebook Whistleblower Complaint Touches Upon

What Haugen revealed was by no means unknown to us here. While she seems to argue that it is the lack of adequate tools that left Facebook unable to check hateful posts, the truth perhaps is a little more complex. The very manner in which the tech giant has been able to stack up its incredible number of users in this country, and encash it in various ways, could be linked to its laxity in checking the tide of hate.

This is also one of the reasons why Facebook had cultivated Narendra Modi far before he became prime minister. Once he came to power, the relationship only deepened. Nothing underlined this more than the long tenure of Facebook’s BJP-friendly public policy director, Ankhi Das. An article she wrote, soaked in her admiration for the prime minister’s style of governance (‘Prime Minister Modi and the new art of Public Governance’), even appeared on the Narendra Modi website in March 2020.

She followed a policy that actively discouraged the take down of hate posts. This seems to have paid off handsomely. Facebook grew exponentially under her tenure which abruptly came to an end in October 2020 after she resigned amidst controversy.

A year later, Siddique continues in jail

It can only happen in a dystopia called Uttar Pradesh. Journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested on October 5, 2020, as he and his colleagues were on their way to Hathras to understand at first-hand the case involving the gang rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman by ‘upper’ caste youth in Boolgarhi village, Hathras district.

Their alleged affiliation to the Popular Front of India (PFI) was sufficient for Chief Minister Adityanath’s police to frame them as “terrorists” and book them under UAPA. In February this year, the PFI – which incidentally is not a banned organisation – denied that neither Kappan nor those who travelled with him, were linked to it. In June, the court dropped the charge, “breach of peace”, against the group. On August 17, LiveLaw reported that the Mathura Court has dismissed the application filed by the UP police to probe Kappan further. Despite all these developments, Kappan and his colleagues remain in jail.

Mohammad Alam (centre) and Siddique Kappan (right) in police custody. They are two among the four arrested in the case in October 2020. Photo: PTI/Files

Their state of health is bad – Kappan contracted COVID-19 in prison and has multiple health concerns; and Atiq-ur-Rahman, who holds a PhD from Meerut University, suffered a cardiac and respiratory disorder recently while being taken to Lucknow to attend a court hearing. Their family members are in a state of acute anxiety. Siddique Kappan’s courageous wife, Raihana Kappan, was not allowed to meet him despite coming from Kerala for the purpose.

More recently, the UP police behaved abominably with the women and children related to the detainees. Not only where they not allowed to meet their family members in jail, they were arrested on the grounds that their RT-PCR test documents were fake (‘UP Police Arrest Three Women From Kerala Who Wanted to Meet UAPA-Accused Kin in Jail’, October 5).

This unacceptable treatment has enraged many within the journalistic community. On October 5, the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ), the Press Club of India, and the Delhi Union of Journalists, held a protest outside the Press Club of India in Delhi (‘Journalists Mark One Year of Siddique Kappan’s Arrest, Demand Release’), calling for his immediate release while another, organised by the KUWJ, was held outside the General Post Office in Thiruvananthapuram. 

The KUWJ has additionally approached the Supreme Court with a contempt petition against UP’s chief secretary, director general of police and three others, for denying medical attention to Kappan in prison. The petition states inter alia that “The act of discharging Mr. Siddhique Kappan at Midnight on 06.05.2021, even depriving him of his sleep amounted to contempt of court…The accused is still in need of the medical assistance, which was denied to him, and delay in treatment will result in irreparable injury.”

The anger will only grow. One tweet from a senior journalist dared TV anchors to do a discussion on Siddique Kappan’s charge sheet by the UP police. Of course there were no takers for the suggestion.

Readers write in…

Pandemic data

Prabhat Sharma writing on behalf of Awaken India movement hopes that The Wire will throw some light on some important aspects of the Covid pandemic:

“The Awaken India movement has a lot of facts and data which we feel need to be brought to light in the interest of public at large. Following some important aspects of this material…

• Vaccine and RT-PCR Testing Coercion/Mandatory-ness: Needed or violation of fundamental rights? We list a lot of judgements by India courts in this regard.

• Efficacy of RT-PCR test and the scientific facts behind it

• Vaccine Severe Adverse Events & Death: Real or rare? Does benefit outweigh risk?

• Opening of Schools: Mask mandate – its medical basis and safety concerns

• Natural Immunity vis-a-vis Vaccine Immunity: Which one is holistic (robust) and long

lasting?

• COWIN KYC API: Needed or abuse of consent and privacy?

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Bulldoze Bollywood?

A reader going by the name of Shantanu is delighted over the arrests of those in the community of Bollywood’s A-listers:

“Good job done! The Narcotics Control Board (NCB) has finally started nipping drug use in the bud. I am happy to see that now A-listers are on their scanner. I am not at all surprised over this piece of news because almost 90 per cent of the Hindi film industry is directly or indirectly linked with drugs, pornography, and so on. My question to the common public is this: why do you guys idolise such spineless, drug-consuming and characterless people who should otherwise have been presented as a bad example to our kids. NCB must raid all A-listers and bulldoze this stinking industry once and for all. Jai Hind!”

Aryan Khan photographed outside NCB office in Mumbai on October 4. Photo: PTI

Release Criminal Records of Candidates

Rakesh Raman shares with us a letter he has sent to Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra. We carry an excerpt from it:

“I am a national award-winning journalist and founder of the humanitarian organisation RMN Foundation/RMN News Service. Earlier, I managed a comprehensive editorial section, ‘Voter Education for Lok Sabha Election 2019 in India’ to educate the Indian voter before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls…

“As you know, the Supreme Court of India – with various judgments and observations – has been trying to check criminality in Indian politics…Recently, the Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana remarked that there is a lack of quality debate in Parliament while enacting laws which leads to excessive litigation. His remarks subtly targeted the ineptitude of Indian politicians. ..

“The political situation is equally bad in all the states including Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Gujarat, where the assembly elections are scheduled to take place in 2022. Therefore, going by the observations of the Supreme Court and to stop criminality in politics, you are urged to get the criminal records of candidates in the upcoming Assembly elections released publicly. Ideally, such candidates should not be allowed to contest elections.”

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End note

The award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. It is a long hard grind to expose authoritarian populist rulers and their repressive governments, wherever they are, and international recognition of the value of such labour is just what is needed.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in