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Backstory: Why Umar Khalid Is in Jail and Other Tales Spun by Media Disinformation

A weekly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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In the mid-1970s, when I enrolled as a student in the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, we were not taught about sources, at least not formally.

I remember, stock phrases such as “mass media” being “agents of social change”, from communications-for-“development” stalwart Wilbur Schramm, who was a guru for the IIMC in those days. But there was nothing, zilch, about the importance of that fountainhead of all journalism – the “source” – upon which every report gets to be shaped and from which it draws its credibility. It was only after I began my professional life that I began to intuitively understand the importance of the source and why it is one of the inalienable rights of journalists to protect their sources.

The source is a person/institution with information that is of public value. Deep Throat, in the Watergate story, remained a shadowy figure for close to three decades until this former FBI functionary decided to reveal his identity as the source of the reports the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had filed on the attempted Watergate interception. Their stories ultimately led to the resignation of a US president for the first and, so far, only time in history.  He later revealed that he had decided to let sunlight in into the dark chamber of the Richard Nixon presidency because he was “disenchanted with its ‘switchblade mentality’”. 

Similarly, a crucial element in Chitra Subramaniam’s Bofors investigation was a bureaucrat in the Swedish government she called ‘Sting’, who felt that there was something in the Bofors-India gun deal that did not add up and he decided to make his suspicions public. 

There are sources and sources and not all them have classified information. They may just have been at Ground Zero when an earthquake took place, or walked 700 kilometres back to their homes from the city they were working in, after a lockdown was announced with a four-hour notice. Such people, too, can be invaluable repositories of crucial information that is of great public interest. 

The digital age has complicated this compact between journalists and their sources in significant ways. The right to source protection now has to necessarily extend to digital data and meta-data.  In addition, the possibility of data surveillance by governments and their investigative agencies has emerged an ever-present threat – and the Pegasus scandal flags this (Watch | Pegasus Project: Why Was Former DNA Journalist Deepak Gidwani on the Snoop List?’). 

Yet another fear that has raised its head in the era of online media is that of manipulated digital information being passed off as a credible source. This is done most often through videos, which through clever editing that cunningly melds bona fide information with fake content, or introduce significant elisions to change meaning and context, appear authentic.  

One of the early instances of such malicious action was when doctored video footage was used to frame JNU students for supposed “anti-national” slogans on the campus in February 2016. In one of the videos, widely circulated through news channels like Zee News, Republic TV and IndiaTV, Umar Khalid – then a doctoral student in JNU – was heard supposedly pronouncing the slogan ‘Bharat tere tukde honge‘.

Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Photo: PTI

Since then the term “tukde tukde gang” has been consistently deployed by channels of this kind and of course Hindutva groups to vilify dissenters and human rights defenders. 

Having gone through such an experience once, Khalid – at present in Delhi’s Tihar jail under UAPA charges for allegedly helping to foment the violence that engulfed northeast Delhi in February 2020 – has a keen idea of the inner workings of media manipulation. The unassailable defence his lawyer mounted in a Delhi court earlier this week on how television footage was used to drag him into this case (Delhi Riots Conspiracy Case ‘Cooked Up’, Was ‘Framed by Media’: Umar Khalid’) indicates this very clearly.

The matter revolved around a speech that Khalid had given on February 17, 2020, in Amravati which, in the police version of events, was allegedly “seditious”. But where did the police get their version from?  From videos put out by two TV channels, Republic TV and News 18. Where did Republic TV and News 18 get their videos from? From a tweet put out by Amit Malviya, national “in-charge” of the BJP’s Information and Technology department.

The tweeted version of the speech was cleverly edited to make it sound “seditious”, in the loosely defined way to which our criminal justice system seems partial. In actuality Khalid had, far from giving a call for violence in that speech, had actually conveyed a message of unity of the people and love. 

Khalid’s lawyer summed it well:

“Your material is a YouTube video which is copied from a tweet. The journalist did not even have the responsibility to go there. It’s not a journalistic ethic. This is death of journalism.”

To term this as the “death of journalism” is by no means an exaggeration. There is nothing journalistic about video footage that was not shot by the channels themselves, but procured from a person who is ideologically and professionally committed to the BJP’s brand of politics. It constitutes yet another instance of how many “government directed” TV channels, by passing off skewed newsfeed as authentic, professionally produced content, are conning their viewers and debasing their journalistic credentials.

If there is one thing this case underlines it is the need for journalists, if they wish to be called professionals, to put all information received from their sources through certain key tests. The date the information they procure, for instance, can be crucial in arriving at an assessment of its genuineness. They would also do well to cross-check and access multiple sources before putting out a particular version as the correct one. Most crucial of all however – and this is emerges very strongly in the present case – is to establish the authorship of the material and whether it is independence and credible. 

In this case, the BJP’s IT Cell may well be a cornucopia of stories for media organisations wishing to fly the Modi banner in their newsrooms, but no one can accuse it of conforming, even accidentally, to journalistic principles.

Getting Afghanistan right

The international media will be a major site on which the Taliban will wage its perception battles and this makes it incumbent upon the media across the world to get their coverage of Afghanistan right at a time of great trauma, distress, loss and uncertainty for the Afghan people.

The first and most important principle for media professionals at this critical juncture, I would argue, is to centre in their work the welfare, well-being, and freedom of expression and information of the people of Afghanistan. Afghans deserve to get credible information and access reportage that reflects the true picture of what is happening in their country. Much of Indian coverage of Afghanistan uses the prism of specifically Indian national interest – or at least what is construed as our national interest. This, I would argue, is not helpful in achieving the right tonality in a fast developing news scenario.

Also watch | ‘Taliban the New Ghani, ISIS the New Taliban’: TOLO TV Head Speaks for Engaging New Regime

This “nation first” approach in not unique to India. For at least the last three decades Afghanistan has been viewed through the neo-imperialist lens by the western media. The US in particular, in its two-decade project to subdue and shape Afghanistan to its will, had invested heavily in the mediatisation of this project, and to a large extent the manner in which the world has come to interpret Afghanistan came to be crucially dependent on US media coverage. All coverage of this kind needs critical re-examination or else fresh reporting will only amplify the misinformation and outright falsities propagated by the multi-trillion US military industrial complex.

The second principle is about understanding what the Taliban represents. It is easy to dismiss them as a barbaric horde intent on destroying civilisation as we know it, but stereotypes are singularly unhelpful in this context. More useful would be to understand what the Taliban stood for in their earlier avatar, and what they continue to stand for in the present times. Extreme interpretations of the Sharia law, aided by the Kalashnikov in order to perpetuate every day brutality, have been a Talibani trademark. Today, there are reports to suggest that the Kalashnikovs of yore have been traded in for the M4 carbines and M16 rifles left behind by the US military and Afghan army units, but we will have to see just how interpretations of the Sharia will be used to subjugate the populace. 

A member of Taliban forces keeps watch at a checkpost in Kabul, Afghanistan August 17, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

How women will be treated under a Taliban order is also a matter of much conjecture and requires a careful handling. A well drafted petition by a group of Muslim women touched upon this by noting that those who are tempted to celebrate the Taliban takeover should be alerted to two important aspects: the “dangerous erasure of the lived experiences of women and minorities in Afghanistan” and the “absence of a public narrative for restorative justice” in the country.

At the same time, the women behind this statement rejected the “alarmist and Islamophobic narratives of media outlets that reproduce tired tropes suggesting that Muslim women everywhere are oppressed and require ‘saviours’.” At the same time, they express their deep anxiety that “advances made in the arena of gender and sexual rights, particularly in relation to bodily integrity, autonomy, education and work, will be eroded by the new regime” and add, “The struggle against narratives that serve the interests of imperialism cannot be used to deflect attention from legitimate concerns about the oppression of women and minorities.”

The fourth and crucial aspect concerns the safety of media professionals operating out of Afghanistan. Many within the country are continuing to report and comment against great odds and the ever-present fear of assassination. Sonali Dhawan, who along with colleague Steven Butler, coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program, have been monitoring the situation, had this to say on the safety of journalists presently operating out of Afghanistan:

 “The precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has led to a complete collapse of the government and security forces, leaving journalists at severe risk of violence. There are simply no avenues for journalists to seek protection from authorities and they are essentially relying on their own community, their neighbors, and family members for protection at this point. As much as there is a need for journalists to get out of the country and CPJ is doing its best to do that work, journalists who want to remain in the country must be allowed to freely report on the extent of a humanitarian crisis that is about to occur.”

The fear is real and we in India had an early taste of it when one of our most talented news photographers, Danish Siddiqui, was killed by Taliban fighters on July 16, much before the US withdrawal (‘Danish Siddiqui Was Left Behind as Afghan Soldiers Retreated, New Reuters Report Says’).

His photographs and their captions were a prophecy of impending upheaval, media targeting and catastrophe.

Guha’s gold

Pradeep Guha’s long career within the folds of the Indian media in their various avatars ended with his death recently. It began with print – most notably through an almost three-decade association with Bennett Coleman and Company Limited (BCCL), publishers of The Times of India – and ended with film production. The deluge of obituaries on him rightly noted his genius for monetising media content in ways previously undreamt of, even if it meant draining journalism as a source of public good. The Wire piece, ‘How Pradeep Guha Revamped the Times Group and Turned it Into a Commercial Behemoth’, notes how he made Bennett Coleman into a big, cash-rich company and added that while “journalists felt that the editorial side had been undermined, there was nothing they could do about it”. 

Guha’s Midas touch is often evoked without irony although that fable is deeply ironical – it was, after all, about how gold has this habit of turning toxic. Like Midas, the gold that Guha helped to create for his employers often turned to dross. Yet, so unstoppable was this process of marketisation, so invested were managements in the pursuit of profit over the journalism of integrity, that editor after editor quietly clambered on to the juggernaut. 

This was not just about the creation of new media “products”, it was about mainstreaming globalisation and neo-liberal economics. Media czars like Guha helped to create a “new middle class” which adopted marketised social values and lifestyles.

Leela Fernandes, author of India’s New Middle Class Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform, quotes Guha, then the executive director of the Times of India, on how advertising came to be invested with more importance than editorial content:

“Undoubtedly, then, the advertiser is my target audience, no question about it. It’s the way commercially successful publishers have managed their businesses abroad. But that does not mean that we do not respect our readers. It’s just that we market our product to those readers which our advertisers want. And these readers are then packaged and sold to our advertisers…”

Today this logic extends far beyond market entrepreneurs of the old kind. Politics, fuelled by corporate support, have created numerous multi-media conglomerates in this country, and they who pay the piper call the media tune.

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Readers write in…

The Afghanistan fiasco

Chandigarh-based Aditya Dhillon describes himself as a “concerned citizen”:

Make no mistake, US President Joe’s Biden’s spirited defence of the catastrophic withdrawal of US personnel from Afghanistan, building on his predecessor’s attempt to negotiate with a terroristic organisation, has followed a long history of hasty US interventionism and withdrawal.

When he addressed the media after the US withdrawal, he did the bare minimum. His condolences for the Afghan people rang hollow and he then swiftly proceeded to bash the Afghan government and its people for refusing to fight back. Meanwhile he continued to foist the narrative of repeated US aid and attempted processes of democratisation.

There are grounds to argue that the leadership of the Afghan government was utterly inept and cowardly. But what cannot be ignored is the callousness of the US government in evaluating its own failures. It seems it is incapable of realising the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan or it refuses to do so for the sake of political expediency. The US went to Afghanistan not in the name of democracy or humanitarianism. Afghanistan had been under the yoke of Taliban rule since at least 1996, when US forces invaded the country — and that too solely as retaliation against one of the worst terror attacks in recent history. Eradicating the Al-Qaeda leadership, believed to have been fostered by the Taliban, and striking at the nexus of terror networks in the country, was the prime objective at that point.

Democratisation and the institutionalisation of the democratic processes became necessary objectives in order to justify their continued presence. Yes, the US did complete a large part of its objective of eradicating the Al-Qaeda leadership, including prime target Osama Bin Laden, and it did push back the Taliban. It also fostered a progressive, if severely limited space, for various oppressed groups under the previous regime, including women as well as ethnic minorities. 

However, despite this, one needs to hold the US government accountable for its utter failure to institutionalise the democratic infrastructure. Merely investing billions of dollars in a country without trying to form mutually inclusive bilateral relationships based on the cultural, economic and political institutions of Afghanistan, was not going to magically democratise the country.

The narrative of the ‘incredulous’ collapse of the Afghan army, spread by the powers that be, painfully hides the failures of the US government in building a sustainable model for the Afghan army as well the sheer misgovernance and political naivete of the Afghan leadership. The haste with which the US retreated also adds another dimension to the international discourse centred on the centuries-old partisan conflict between perceived imperialistic and non-imperialistic forces. A recent New York Times opinion piece by Bret Stephens argues that even if the US had to retreat, it should have implemented a better retreat plan; and if with 2,500 personnel it was able to strategically ensure some semblance of peace in the region, should it not have reconsidered the Donald Trump deal?  

India’s situation in this scenario is perilous to say the least. Our government is now potentially exposed to conflict in two theatres. At the same time, the Pakistan regime now has a new proxy theatre on which to base its anti-India operations. India should also not bear the disproportionate costs of the looming humanitarian crisis. India has had a commendable history of resolving international crises, whether it was in the Congo or Korea, although it has also had memorable failures such as during the Hungarian uprising and during the deployment of the peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka. 

The Indian government should use its position in the UN Security Council to push for an internationalist policy while keeping national goals in mind. If anything we cannot and should not repeat the mistakes of other international powers. For once, the US must be held accountable for the Afghanistan fiasco and made to clean up its own mess.

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Anti-national?

Nandkishor Banubakode has strong views on The Wire:

He writes: “Your paper is biased and spreads an anti-national spirit.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in