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Backstory: Journalism Is About Fact Gathering and Fact Checking, Which Is Why Zubair Is a Journalist

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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Within the journalistic universe the glamorous figures of intrepid reporters are juxtaposed with that generally unsung collective of sub-editors known by the rather wooden appellation of ‘The Desk’. Reporters in fact have an ambiguous relationship with The Desk, with some among them subscribing to the familiar witticism that sub-editors work assiduously to separate the wheat from the chaff in a story, only to end up keeping the chaff and throwing out the wheat. Yet deep down most reporters are grateful that somebody is actually going through their collage of facts and making sense out of them. 

Professional media organisations came to realise over time that any information put out to the public must necessarily go through the sieve of critical scrutiny, contextualisation and cross-checking if it is to be rendered worthy of public trust.

The legacy media also quickly understood that winning ‘public trust’ was not just about morality, it made excellent business sense. In 1913, Ralph Pulitzer even set up a Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play with the catchline ‘Truth Telling is the Sole Reason for the Existence of a Press at All” – an early prototype of today’s fact checker. 

Historically, this brave tribe sometimes has the instincts of a blood hound, going the extra distance to sniff out veracity. The story is told of an Egyptian fact checker who was so dogged that he decided to personally measure a palace wall to confirm its claimed height – and got punished for his pains. 

As a young intern at The Times of India in Bombay in the late 70s, I remember an army of crotchety, somewhat elderly, men (most were male in those days), with blue ink in their veins. They always kept a well thumbed dictionary at hand and a close eye on the principles of readability, balance, clarity and, above all, accuracy in the reports submitted to them. One of them, I remember, held his pencil at a 90° angle to the sheet of typed copy I had handed in, and scored a diagonal line right through it.  It took several diagonal lines over several sheets of paper before reports were seen to pass muster.

By the time these desk wizards got promoted to the onerous post of chief-sub-editor, their array of pencils – used relentlessly on the galley proofs sent to them from the printers’ deck below – had been reduced to stubs.  In the 1920s, TIME magazine’s fact checker Nancy Ford used to personally visit the New York Public Library to get on with her job, but these Times of India gentlemen needed only to seek the services of a special archival team, tucked away somewhere in the innards of the Old Lady of Boribunder – whose express function was to maintain clippings of newspapers classified according to themes. This was a job that provided employment to a fair number of men and women, whose main task was to mark and clip the day’s papers, paste the clippings on sheets of paper; neatly label them in terms of theme, source, date; and file them away for easy retrieval.  

Technology in the internet age rendered obsolete – with a click of a mouse – that entire sub-set of clippers and keepers. In a similar way, the sub-editors’ desk of yore, while it continues to be important, is longer adequate in order to keep tab of the way technology is enabling the falsification of information on an industrial scale. The older ways of checking and correcting disinformation/misinformation now needed to be supplemented with the interventions of a new tribe of fact checkers who understood the ways in which technology was being used to morph, alter, or even completely fabricate information for ends ranging from the political and commercial to the personal. 

A good example of how technology can be weaponised to destroy the person targeted ironically involved a fact checker himself.

Mohammed Zubair was brought into the dragnet of the police on a fabricated case, as an investigation carried by The Wire exposes so clearly.

One of the attempts by the state of Uttar Pradesh to trap Zubair in what the Supreme Court rightly termed as a “vicious cycle of the criminal process”, was to dismiss his status as a journalist. Fortunately for him, this argument failed to persuade the Supreme Court, which saw no reason to prevent his bail application and his right to tweet “as a journalist”.

When asked about this later by The News Minute, Zubair explained why he, as a fact checker, was also a journalist: “By qualification, I may not be a professional journalist, but what I’m doing now is the job of a journalist. When journalists say that Zubair is not a journalist, I would say you are a journalist, but you’re not doing journalism. I may not be a journalist by qualification, but I’m doing what you’re supposed to do.”

It is during particularly portentous periods of a country’s existence – like a general election or a health crisis – that the significance of the fact checker becomes most apparent because these precisely are the periods when there is a spike in skewed information. Take the years 2020-21, when the COVID-19 crisis was raging across India and with it an epidemic of fake news that hawked spurious cures and scapegoated communities. Take the narrative of “corona jihad” of those days, put out through television chat shows and furthered by hundreds of thousands of WhatsApp forwards. Its impact on the ground was immediate with innocent Muslim vendors being boycotted, attacked and even incarcerated.

AltNews – the fact checking entity created by techies Pratik Sinha and Zubair, both of whom were working in the social media space – emerged in early 2017. The period preceding its launch had seen a spate of fast paced developments. Both the Pathankot and Uri attacks which broke the back of India-Pakistan relations took place in 2016. Also in that year, we saw repression unleashed on the JNU campus with the help of a morphed video that framed bright student leaders as anti-nationals; the unleashing of violence on young Dalits in Una; and the assassination by the security forces of Burhan Wani, commander of Hizbul Mujahideen who was also a social media icon.

The end of 2016 witnessed the announcement of demonetisation which triggered a nation-wide panic. It was amidst this flux that Reliance Jio made its appearance, with its welcome packages of free and cheap data that in turn saw the exponential rise in the use of platforms like WhatsApp, not just in the metros but in remote corners of the country. Pratik Sinha, speaking to journalist Sonia Faleiro for her 2021 piece on AltNews, ‘Fact-checking Modi’s India, pointed to how in the India scenario, misinformation was spread largely through “two or three lines of text and an image, all tailored to WhatsApp.”

Over the years, AltNews honed methodologies that exposed the misuse of communication technologies for nefarious reasons. Their work has led many others to become fact checkers themselves. Among them was Meera Devi, a reporter with the Bundelkhand-based rural news portal, Khabar Lahariya, who even launched ‘Chunavi Bukhaar, Savdaan! (Election Fever, Beware!)’ to take on the fake news being circulated in her region around the 2019 general election.

In Karnataka, amidst the recent surge of hate crimes in a state that had always generally been peaceful, a collective of concerned observers constituted ‘Hate Speech Beda’ to monitor the media sphere in which communal propaganda is being nested.

It takes courage for AltNews to continue with its work, despite being pitted against a hostile and authoritarian government along with an army of ideologues and trolls. The Wire investigation cited earlier points to how from 2018 onwards a network of 757 accounts linked to personal website of Vikash Ahir, Gujarat president of the Hindu Yuva Vahini,  who was behind the recent Zubair arrest, had been attempting to frame the AltNews founders as “Hinduphobic”, while tagging local authorities to get them arrested.

The recent Supreme Court has ensured that Zubair got bail but he is still very much in the clutches of an unforgiving system. It needs to be widely recognised by the Indian public that his recent incarceration was unconscionable and a huge blot on Indian democracy. Today, he needs his freedom back and the courts should ensure that he can function as a fact checker-journalist without the threat of coercive action hanging over him.

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State of denial

To a question raised in the Lok Sabha on India being ranked among the 30 worst nations out of 180 in terms of the World Press Freedom Index, the Centre responded in what appears as bureaucratese crafted in the highest traditions of Sir Humphrey Appleby from the British comedy shows, ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’.

It starts by discrediting the Index, going on to say that it “does not agree to the conclusions drawn by this organisation for various reasons including very small sample size, little or no weightage to fundamentals of democracy, adoption of a methodology which is questionable and non-transparent.” 

Also read: Centre Doesn’t Agree With India’s Rank In World Press Freedom Index: I&B Minister

If you thought the reference to the government’s concern that the Index  gave “no weightage to  fundamentals of democracy” was hilarious, what follows is an exercise in wool-gathering that would have had delighted Sir Humphrey! 

“…In pursuance of its policy to uphold the freedom of press, the Government does not interfere in the functioning of the press. Press Council of India (PCI) a statutory autonomous body, has been set up under the Press Council of Act, 1978 mainly to preserve the freedom of the Press and improve the standards of newspapers and news agencies in the country. PCI considers complaints filed ‘by the Press’ concerning curtailment of press freedom, physical assault/attack on journalists etc. under Section 13 of the Press Council Act 1978 and processed under the provisions of the Press Council (Procedure for Inquiry) Regulations, 1979. PCI is also empowered to take suo-motu cognizance in matters on the pressing issues concerning freedom of Press and safeguarding of its high standards.”

The Government of India knows, better than anyone of us, that the Press Council of India has no powers of enforcement and has generally proved as good as a dead duck when it comes to protecting media freedoms. In fact, even the ‘autonomy’ that the PCI is claimed to have, has been undermined by the government (‘Centre’s New Rules Compromise Press Council of India’s Autonomy, PCI Members Say’, March 2021). Very rarely has PCI taken “suo-motu cognizance in matters on the pressing issues concerning freedom of Press…”

Meanwhile, in the real world, Indian journalists continue to be undermined in innumerable ways. Now, in addition to mediapersons being denied access to the Central Hall of Parliament, camerapersons and videographers have been informed that they will not have access to official events. This Independence Day, for instance, as the country prepares to celebrate its 75th year of independence, they will now be denied entry.

As for those journalists who show enterprise and pierce the veil of silence that is imposed on issues that potentially embarrass the government, they are left to face the ire of workers of the ruling party, as mediapersons working with a film and media collective, ChalChitra Abhiyaan, discovered. While trying to understand how the GST rate hike on items of daily use has affected the ordinary residents of Kishanpur Baral village in UP, they were set upon by a man who was allegedly a BJP worker. After the incident, the founder of this Collective, Nakul Singh Sawhney, put out a tweet that reflected the ground reality: “This is the state of press freedom and ground reporting in India” (‘UP: Journalists Threatened for Reporting on GST Rate Hike’, July 21).

Also read: ‘We Know it Won’t Make Us Rich’: A Small Collective in a UP Town Redefines Journalistic Practice

In Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh, there is urgent need for the authorities to be sensitised “about the vital role of the free press in a democratic society and to deal with people who attack reporters with the full force of the law”, as a DIGIPUB statement on this assault put it. The government of India should also desist from occupying the high moral ground on India’s failing media freedoms and instead do something about them.

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Sharp pencils

The power of the cartoon lies in its ability to encapsulate with a few swift lines the truths of the times in ways that are immediately comprehended by the ordinary viewer. A recent brilliant exposition of a reality we are presently living through was captured by this cartoon from PenPencilDraw.

It had consequences. 

A Chennai-based blogger, Savukku Shankar, tweeted it along with a line of commentary which riled an hon’ble judge of the Madurai Bench of the Madras high court to such an extent that he promptly filed a suo motu contempt notice again Shankar. As a piece in the Medianama observes, “Citizens approach courts when their freedom of speech and expression is violated. But when the court itself curbs this freedom by initiating suo motu proceedings for trivial issues, it sheds a bad light on the state of fundamental rights in the country. Ironically, Justice Swaminathan’s order begins with the cartoon embedded below.”

Readers write in…

Desk alert

I received some feedback on typos and misinterpretations by the desk:

In the last sentence of paragraph 13 of the piece, ‘Book Review: Women Trying to Make Their Own Histories in the Face of State Power’ (July 20), what looks like ‘origin stories’ has been changed to ‘originating stories’. 

Also, the introduction to the piece, ‘Delhi HC Reserves Order on Appeal Against Denial of Copy of SC Collegium Decisions Under RTI’ (July 22), reads: “The petitioner sought details of a Collegium meeting on December 12, 2018 in which then CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Madan Lokur were to decide on the alleviation of two HC chief justices to the SC”. The word ‘alleviation’ appears instead of ‘elevation’.

Is this a case of auto-correct being given a free run, the mail asks.

[Editor’s note: We regret the errors. Both mistakes have now been corrected. ].

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Age of graft…

Sumit Vadera, of Vaderas Interiors & Exteriors Ghaziabad, writes in:

“There have been reports on corruption cases and graft highlighted in the media recently. We are an MSME working in the infrastructure industry as a contracting firm. A payment of Rs. 62,40,141.00 (excluding interest) due to us since 01-07-2013 is pending with a public sector unit in the construction sector that is deemed a “Navratna enterprise”. We have with us the copies of the work order, passed bill and details of payments. We have received numerous written assurances that the payment will be made but unfortunately it has been denied to us under some excuse or the other… We have all the proof that this organisation has been denying us our legitimate payments with an ulterior motive and is not going to pay us our dues until their ulterior motives are catered to. We are a law-abiding organisation and our patriotism doesn’t allow us to entertain any illegitimate expectations. 

“We would like The Wire, as one of the few media entities still standing for truth and honesty, to look into our harassment by a government entity since 2013.”

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Brutal attack on peaceful protestors

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development; CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation; Front Line Defenders; International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders;  South Asians for Human Rights sent in this statement on the brutal attack against peaceful protesters by security forces in Sri Lanka (an excerpt):  

“We strongly condemn the brutal attack against unarmed peaceful protesters by Sri Lankan forces in Colombo on in the early hours of 22 July 2022. Since March 2022, thousands of people including human rights defenders, journalists, and members of civil society have been protesting peacefully across the country against the government’s mismanagement of the economy amid a deepening economic and financial crisis that has led to skyrocketing prices and shortages of fuel, food, and other basic necessities. On numerous occasions, the authorities responded with unnecessary and disproportionate force, arrest, misinformation, and threats against protesters, including human rights defenders. The violence on 22 July 2022 occurred less than 24 hours after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the country’s new President. Mr. Wickremesinghe succeeded Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country on 13 July and resigned a day later. The unnecessary and disproportionate force used against unarmed civilians is a clear violation of Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations under international law and is inconsistent with international human rights standards.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in.