The year was 2008 and my brother (nine at that time), was fixated on the television screen showing minute-by-minute dramatisation of how Rajesh and Nupur Talwar plotted the murder of their only daughter. As soon as my father returned from work that day, my brother looked at him (petrified) and said, “You’ll also kill me one day!” My father promptly switched the TV off, hugged his little one, and cut the cable connection the next day.
The story had everything to have that kind of an impact on a child – a victim, a villain, a perfect murder motive, intense background music, explicit graphics and godly narration – the kind of stuff ideal Friday movie nights were made of. Except that it was coming from a mainstream news channel. To be fair to them, they did put a disclaimer saying it was a ‘creative reconstruction’ for representative purposes only.
Cut to 2020. One would think that with better technology, connectivity and feedback mechanisms, media coverage would have gradually transitioned towards more responsible, ethical and sensitive discourse. Turns out it’s an even better circus with an even bigger compromise on the duty that journalism once used to be.
On June 14, Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead in his Bandra apartment. The same week, Rajput’s father filed a case against co-actor Rhea Chakraborty, accusing her of abetment in his alleged suicide. Rajput’s sister even claimed that Chakraborty, also his partner at that time, was ‘into’ using black magic.
What followed was a whirlpool of misreported facts, concocted lies, and sheer entertainment in the name of news. News channels shamelessly ran provocative headlines like “Sushant par Rhea ka kaala jaadu” (Rhea’s black magic on Sushant) and “Rhea ke jhooth par kya kehta hai India?” (What does India have to say about Rhea’s lies?) The first code of conduct was broken soon after graphic details about his alleged suicide were discussed like dinner-table gossip.
‘Failed to follow guidelines’
Dr Soumitra Pathare, the director of the Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy at the Indian Law Society, said, “Media needs to improve its reporting of suicides and attempted suicides in India. We have seen that the media fails to adhere to both the international guidelines for suicide reporting (WHO guidelines) as well as national guidelines from the Press Council of India. Research has shown that responsible media reporting of suicides can reduce suicides by 1-2%. That would mean a saving 2,500-5,000 lives each year. The media needs to use the opportunity to raise awareness about suicide prevention, rather than focus on sensationalising suicide deaths.”
While the Mumbai police was investigating the actor’s death, TV channels were busy running parallel investigations in newsrooms. From reading his personal diary to calling a ‘paranormal expert’ who spoke with his spirit, every week a new narrative was served fresh to equally hungry audiences. First, they vilified the “Bollywood mafia” for plotting against him, then they added an underworld connection to it. But it got worse once the case was transferred to the CBI, the moment which republic TV anchor Arnab Goswami famously referred to as “an incredible moment in our country’s history”. On the same day, the Supreme Court had rejected the plea of students to postpone JEE and NEET exams, saying that “life has to go on”.
News channels conveniently cast Chakraborty as the perfect villain. One such skit saw Times Now’s Navika Kumar crashing into a live telecast with a (literal) bag full of evidence. The “explosive” info turned out to be a 2017 chat between Rhea and her friends allegedly talking about marijuana, which Kumar later dissected, down to every emoji. “Weed is also called green. It’s a pure coincidence that I’m wearing green tonight,” she said. What was actually CBD oil prescribed by Ayurvedic doctors, she made it look like Rhea was talking about giving drugs to Sushant. Any gossip-mongering anchor dressed in green cannot assume the role of the Narcotics Control Bureau that’s still investigating whether she’s guilty or not.
From sexist to origin-based slurs, Rhea was subjected to widespread social media hate campaign fuelled by these media channels. They have a tendency to use question marks to rid themselves of making verified claims. For example, saying “Sushant ko Rhea ke jeher ne mara?” or “Riya ne Sushant par kia jaadu tona?” is like saying: “Have the media channels sold their soul to gain more TRPs?” I’m totally not suggesting they have.
Nobody is spared
They didn’t even spare delivery boys, locksmiths, security guards or neighbours. Without an iota of proof, each one of them was given legitimacy on national news channels. For instance, a random Facebook page ran a fake story about the rape and murder of Disha Salian, Rajput’s ex-manager. The post – that claims Salian’s murderers also killed Rajput – comes with a disclaimer that this could either be a factual or a fictional account. News channels like Republic TV called the writer to discuss his theory, only to be converted into high-decibel debates moments later. Between July 24 and July 29, the channel conducted 45 out of 50 debates on the Rajput case, one on NEET/JEE student protests and one on the coronavirus. This did help Republic TV gain a 50% market share though, according to the latest TRP figures. In the name of super and ultra-exclusives, news channels were running a witch-hunt and provoking people with hashtags like ‘ArrestRheaNow’.
More than a decade ago, SMSs did the same job. While the investigation of the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder case was on, media channels were busy asking viewers to send SMSs guessing who the murderer was. On May 15, 2008, Aarushi Talwar’s body was found along with the household help Hemraj. Three teams – one from the UP Police, and two from the CBI – probed the murders, yet the investigation ended with the CBI’s closure report citing insufficient evidence. Later, the Talwars – accused of Aarushi’s murder by the media – were acquitted in 2017. In this case, too, the media viciously played up different angles like honour killing, her father’s alleged extra-marital affair, fake news that Aarushi was an adopted child, demonised the Talwars for not crying enough on TV. A few channels even flashed her 17-year-old friend’s number live on-screen.
Supreme Court’s caution
In August 2010, the Supreme Court cautioned the media against irresponsible reporting affecting the victim’s honour. In this case, too, Chakraborty has filed a case with the apex court, saying the ‘media trial’ was attempting to pronounce her guilty of Sushant’s death.
“Can freedom of press be allowed to degenerate into a license to malign the character of a dead person? Does our Constitution not guarantee the right to privacy even to the dead?” these were some questioned posed by advocate Surat Singh in 2008 while seeking a restraint on the media while the Talwar investigation was on.
The media hasn’t learned any lessons and is showing once again how deaths must not be reported. The real question for any responsible media outlet would be to ask how did news anchors get access to confidential call records, bank statements, WhatsApp messages and post-mortem photographs.
What could have been a debate about suicide prevention policy and a raging mental health crisis in India turned into a public court, discussing gossip like a cheap tabloid. “Questions have been raised whether it was a suicide or homicide. Whatever the cause, I am quite clear that Rajput’s medical history should not have been put in the public domain without consent from his legal heirs/executors of his estate,” Pathare said. “The fundamental right to privacy and the provisions of the Mental Healthcare Act should mean that this is protected information. Sharing someone’s medical history in the public domain increases stigma and is likely to dissuade people from seeking help.”
In cases of trial by media, justice is often not only denied but also derailed by reducing a tragedy into a sensational drama. Legal experts believe that media does influence in forming public opinion. Former solicitor general of India Harish Salve, in a 2015 interview with Shekhar Gupta, said, “The problem today is that the small screen has become the judge and jury of everything… and I confess, that the fact that these perceptions do not affect the final decision-making is a ‘legal fiction’. They do affect and this is my feeling as a lawyer.”
Disregard for watchdogs
Media watchdog Press Council of India has issued an advisory saying that media should not conduct their own parallel trial or foretell the decision to avoid pressure during investigation and trial. Industry body News Broadcasters Association that has listed detailed guidelines on areas where broadcasters need to self-regulate.
More than 80 days of prejudiced media coverage of this case give the impression that media watchdogs are hardly taken seriously by those running the show. Whether it was the Indrani Mukherjea-Sheena Bora case, the deaths of Sunanda Pushkar or Sri Devi, Indian news media has been at its sensationalist best.
This is in sharp contrast with the cases of Priyadarshini Mattoo, Nitish Katara, Bijal Joshi, and Jessica Lal, where the guilty would have gone unpunished had it not been for the media’s intervention. But the buck stops with the media if it wants to recoup its position as the ‘fourth estate’ in the real sense. There is an innate need for stronger media watchdogs, editors’ guilds and industry bodies with tangible influence. I’m not arguing in favour of regulating the freedom of press, but irresponsible reporting needs to be countered with a checks-and-balance mechanism in the form of compensation, public outcry or injunction.
The solution, lawyer Sanjay Hegde says in a YouTube discussion, “People need to stop watching push TV and start watching pull TV and maybe that’s the only way.” Meanwhile, leading news channels will keep feeding viewers with news flashes of Rhea Chakraborty in a bikini with headers like “What is the sly girl’s source of income?” and all this amidst a pandemic when India is dealing with one of its worst economic crises, job losses, flooding and student protests.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also refer them to the nearest hospital.
Prerna Lidhoo is a journalist based in Delhi. She tweets @PLidhoo.