Those who want justice done in the Aarushi murder case must stand up against the unethical coverage of the trial
Those who claim to respect the “rule of law” should feel concerned about the unfolding of the Aarushi-Hemraj murder trial and its reportage in the media.
On May 14, the print and electronic media triumphantly reported that the Supreme Court had rejected an application submitted by Aarushi’s parents, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, who are the main accused, asking for additional witnesses to be summoned.
The couple was directed instead to approach the High Court.
In the media, however, it was made to appear as if the Talwars had tried to bend the system and failed. But why did they approach the Supreme Court? What relief were they seeking?
The Talwars had submitted an application to the Ghaziabad Trial Court asking for 14 persons, including 9 police officers who had investigated the case in its early stages, to depose before the court as witnesses. This list included Uttar Pradesh Additional Director General (Law and Order) Arun Kumar, who headed the first team of CBI investigators. These names had figured in the list submitted by the CBI, but were later dropped. In an order dated May 4, Judge Shyam Lal turned down the application. Given the persistent problem of delayed listings in the Allahabad High Court, the Talwars approached the Supreme Court for relief. Taking cognisance of the problem, the apex court ruled: “Learned counsel for the Petitioner seeks permission to withdraw the SLP with the liberty to approach the High Court. Permission is granted. In case the matter is mentioned for being taken out of turn, we request the High Court to consider it sympathetically.”
The media gave this simple order a different spin. Mail Today wrote: “The Supreme Court’s dismissal of an application from Rajesh and Nupur Talwar to summon 14 witnesses in the murder case of their daughter Aarushi and domestic help Hemraj clears the decks for progress in the trial case. The apex court rightfully censured the Talwars for attempting to leapfrog the Allahabad High Court....”
Excuse me, but where exactly is the “censure” in the order?
I would imagine that it would be of utmost importance to record the testimonies of these 14 witnesses given the complex history of the case. It is common knowledge that the incompetence of the U.P. police compromised the forensic evidence in the early stages. Even before the investigations had begun, they had ‘solved’ the case by famously declaring that Rajesh Talwar had killed his daughter after discovering her with Hemraj “in an objectionable though not compromising position”.
The first team of the CBI found no evidence by which to charge Rajesh but enough to name Hemraj’s friends Krishna Thadarai, Raj Kumar and Vijay Mandal as the prime suspects. The second CBI team turned this conclusion upside down even though their closure report categorically stated that there was not enough evidence to chargesheet the Talwars.
The report, however, left a trail of damaging insinuations on the basis of which the magistrate of the Ghaziabad court charged Aarushi’s parents with murder and destruction of evidence. The media did not question the glaring contradictions of the closure report, the peculiar logic of the magistrate’s order or want to know why the role of outsiders in the murder was not even being considered given that a crucial piece of evidence, a pillowcase with Hemraj’s blood and DNA, had been recovered from Krishna’s room.
While the prosecution may have its own reasons for dropping certain witnesses, why should the courts not want to hear all sides of the story? Similarly, the push to “clear the decks” and “provide closure” is nothing more than an attempt to railroad the judicial process. On May 15, the Hindustan Times reported on its front page that, “fed up with the repeated adjournments sought by Rajesh and Nupur Talwar”, the CBI court “threatened to cancel their bail”.
Guilt, a no-brainer
While efficiency in a legal system is certainly to be desired, speed cannot be privileged over due process. But since the trial by media has already declared the Talwars guilty, the legal process seems a mere formality, perhaps even a waste of time.
Having demonised the Talwars (as decadent perverts, corrupt manipulators, neglectful parents, honour-killers and so on) the print and electronic media have failed miserably to uphold even the basic tenets of professional journalism. On April 16, when Investigating Officer AGL Kaul declared the Talwars to be the killers, it made headline news, even though the allegation was neither new nor backed by corroborative evidence. When the very next day, Kaul’s neat thesis kept falling apart during cross-examination, the media never bothered to report it. What went unreported in the process was Kaul’s claim that he continued to stand by every word of the closure report. But the same closure report also says there was not enough evidence to chargesheet the Talwars.
So how does it all add up? Actually, it doesn’t.
Here are a few examples of what the media never told us. The media never told us that the Talwars’ domestic help, Bharti, the first to enter the house after the murders, had inadvertently confessed to being tutored by the CBI. The media never told us that Dr. Naresh Raj’s observation (having conducted the autopsy on Hemraj’s body) that the “swollen penis” on the cadaver was proof that he was either having sex or preparing for it was based not on any “scientific authority” but his own experience as a married man! Medical science explains that a cadaver exposed to extreme heat commonly manifests such swelling. Hemraj’s body lay in the heat for 36 hours before it was discovered. More importantly, the CBI is now claiming that the pillowcase with Hemraj’s blood and DNA had been recovered not from Krishna but Hemraj’s room. Why the turnaround? The muddle they say was created by a “typographical error.” From no angle does this appear to be an open-and-shut case.
The presumption of innocence till guilt is proven is a cardinal principle of criminal justice. Those who genuinely want justice for Aarushi and Hemraj should insist on a fair trial as well as ethical standards from the media. There must be room for reasonable doubt and a realisation that since none of us was at the scene of the crime, we cannot know what happened.
As the May 2006 Supreme Court judgment in Zahira Habibullah Sheikh and Others vs. State of Gujarat categorically states, there can be no fair trial without “an impartial judge, a fair prosecutor and an atmosphere of judicial calm.” What is unfolding around the trial is a travesty of this idea.
We can only hope that the courts will uphold a rule of law that believes as much in protecting the innocent as punishing the guilty and refuse to be persuaded by the “collective conscience” of a lynch-mob.
(Shohini Ghosh is Sajjad Zaheer Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia)
Note: Due to an editing error, the 14 witnesses that the Talwars want to testify in court were wrongly described as police officers. Only nine of them are with the police.