Civil liberties activists have criticised the media for being an IB mouthpiece in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case, while others question the role of ‘activist journalists’

The battle over the Gujarat encounter killings of 2004 is being fought at multiple levels.

An ideological and political conflict has erupted over the ways to fight “terror.” The Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) are engaged in an unprecedented inter-agency spat. The legal battle is centred on whether the encounter was “fake” and if so, who were the men behind it. With all these battles being fought in the public sphere, the media has emerged as a key player.

‘IB plants’

On June 13, Headlines Today played unsubstantiated tapes of an alleged conversation between a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander and men killed in the encounter, supposedly plotting to kill Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. It also produced a letter written by the IB chief to the CBI, pointing out that the IB had prior inputs about these threats. A story on the India Today website stated, “Noted terrorist David Headley has also revealed to the FBI that Ishrat Jahan was a suicide bomber of the LeT.”

A group of civil liberties activists, in a signed statement, has pointed out that the tapes were aired 24 hours before a hearing in the Ishrat Jahan case. “The attempt was to undercut the investigation probing the conspiracy hatched by the officers of the Crime Branch in eliminating Ishrat and three others by somehow tainting them with the terror tag.” Questioning the media for airing tapes “without forensic or voice tests,” they added, “Being the IB’s chosen one for their dirty tricks is not something to be particularly proud of.”

When asked for a response, Headlines Today refused to comment.

But a senior editor in the television industry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “Most stories can be labelled as leaks or plants, but what needs to be scrutinised is whether the journalist has authentic facts and documents.” He added that the question of Ishrat’s “terrorist links” was an important one, for “at stake is the credibility and morale of India’s counterterror intelligence agency.”

Vrinda Grover, lawyer of Shamima Kauser, the mother of Ishrat Jahan, disagreed it was legitimate to carry such stories. “In that case, to be fair, say IB has given me this. Say an IB officer is accused and is sitting in a senior position. Say the National Investigation Agency (NIA) which interrogated Headley discarded his so-called statements on Ishrat in its final report as not credible. And tell IB to show the entire NIA document and recording instead of selective leaks.”

Manufactured links

On June 22, Sunday Guardian (SG) ran a story which said that the interrogation report of David Headley, prepared by the NIA “claims Ishrat Jahan was a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative.” This was based on Headley stating that in “late 2005, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi introduced Muzzammil to me.” Headley then says in the NIA report, according to the story, that Zaki spoke of the “Ishrat Jahaan module” as one of “Muzzammil’s botched-up operations.”

In a Facebook post, Mukul Sinha, lawyer of Gopinath Pillai, father of Javed Sheikh, one of the men killed in the encounter, pointed to a glaring contradiction. According to the NIA report, Headley himself had told interrogators that he had known Muzzammil since 2002, and Muzzammil had become Headley’s handler around August 2004.

Abhinandan Mishra, who wrote the story, said that “details of the report” had come to him from a “trusted source.” When The Hindu asked whether he had investigated the inconsistency in the report, Mr. Mishra avoided a direct answer. “Mr. Sinha, as a lawyer of Javed Sheikh, is entitled to his views. I stand by my story.”

Misleading headlines

Activists also point to stories with “misleading headlines” in Hindustan Times.

On July 2, HT ran a story with the headline, “Ishrat Jahan had links with Kashmiri separatists: CBI.” Following a protest letter by Ms Grover, who pointed out that the story made no such link, HT issued a correction, admitting the headline was “erroneous and misleading.”

On July 8, HT published another report, on its front page headlined “IB’s Ishrat tapes: ‘Machlee Number 5’ is code for Modi.” In a mail, the Justice for Ishrat Jahan Campaign said these “so-called IB’s Ishrat tapes do not have a single reference to Ishrat,” and alleged that HT had published a “plug story for IB.”

On July 11, HT did a story referring to Amjad Ali, one of the men killed in the encounter, as Ishrat’s “friend.” This prompted a third letter to the editor, where Ms Grover said the charge sheet showed there was no link between Ishrat and Amjad Ali.

When asked for his response, Sanjoy Narayan, HT’s editor-in-chief, said, “There was a mistake in one headline, and we clarified it immediately. Our reportage on the issue has been objective, and our comment pieces have been clear. Read the paper as a whole rather than just a headline.” HT said it would carry Ms Grover’s letter on Friday.

Ms Grover says all these stories distract from the core issue. “Instead of using this issue to kick-start a debate on implications of encounter killings, the media is lowering the threshold by speaking of ‘controlled killings’ and positing ‘law and order’ as opposites.”

What of ‘activist media’

If activists accuse certain reporters of pushing a particular view of the case, others allege that certain media platforms are “peddling the CBI’s and activists’ line.”

On June 29, Tehelka ran a story with the headline, “Rajinder Kumar to be arrested for his role in Ishrat killing.” It said, “News has just come in that Kumar will be an accused in the charge sheet to be filed on 2 July,” and quoted a source saying that if he was an accused, “he will certainly face arrest.” However, the CBI charge sheet, when it came, did not name Mr. Kumar as an accused.

Laxmi Murthy, a journalist who wrote a critical piece of the “media vilification of Ishrat Jahan” on the media website thehoot.org, believes journalists need to be careful not to turn into activists. “Drummed-up propaganda, without evidence, is the easiest thing to counter, and only gives ammunition to the other side.”

Rana Ayyub, the reporter who wrote the story for Tehelka, rejects the suggestion that her stories have turned out to be inaccurate. “The charge sheet says it was a joint operation of the IB and Gujarat Police. A supplementary charge sheet is expected. Our report had great impact, and for the first time, there was a debate on IB’s role.”

Stick to facts

Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of the IBN 18 network, believes that in the battle of the competing narratives, the core problem is the “opaqueness” of the government information systems. “The Home Ministry should have provided a full public explanation, and if that involved criticising a government agency, so be it.” But since this did not happen, he argues, the media got into the tricky terrain of “source-based, speculative journalism.” This led to the media being “used, manipulated” by one agency against the other.

Mr. Sardesai suggests a principle for reporting such “sensitive stories.” “Stick to facts which are in the public domain, report contents of the charge-sheet, previous judgments, official statements, and leave opinion for edit pages.” Going by the widespread criticism of their coverage, Indian news editors and reporters may want to imbibe that lesson.

(The Hindu competes with Hindustan Times, named in this story.)

prashant.j@thehindu.co.in

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