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The police and the journalist

Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair sits in a police vehicle outside a court in New Delhi on June 28, 2022.

Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair sits in a police vehicle outside a court in New Delhi on June 28, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

There is a saying that goes: You show me the man and I will show you the rule. Recently, the Delhi Police arrested Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, for posting an “objectionable tweet” in 2018 that allegedly hurt religious beliefs. The tweet in question was a still from a 1983 Hindi movie, Kissi Se Na Kehna! A day later, K.P.S. Malhotra, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), claimed that transactions over ₹50 lakh had been made in Mr. Zubair’s bank account over three months. Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha responded on Twitter claiming that the police were linking donations received by Alt News to Mr. Zubair. The claim, in fact, was never a part of police submissions in court seeking Mr. Zubair’s police remand, nor was it mentioned during oral arguments in court. As Alt News is a fact-checking platform, it was quick to provide its version on social media platforms. But there are several cases where the accused do not get such an opportunity.

The truth is, if the publicity that a case gets helps the police push a narrative to a specific end, the law-enforcers are more than happy to come on record. The police in each State have a media policy. In Delhi, for instance, no officer below the rank of DCP is authorised to give an official quote to the press. That does not mean that a reporter cannot have a source in the subsidiary ranks.

In 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs sent an advisory to the States on the ‘media policy of police’. One point said: “Officers should confine their briefings to the essential facts and not rush to the press with half-baked, speculative or unconfirmed information about ongoing investigations.” The advisory also stated that “due care should be taken to ensure that there is no violation of the legal, privacy and human rights of the accused/victims.” It is common knowledge that the police do provide half-baked, speculative statements to reporters. At what point then should the reporter stop trusting the police? While the standard practice, at least in the print media, is to get the version of the accused, many in the television media seldom think along these lines. Individuals are branded guilty according to a script. No one waits for the court’s verdict.

Crime reporters depend on the police for information. But a pavement-thumping reporter will always ask questions if the information is speculative or appears to be motivated. Often, thanks to instinct, the reporter drops stories that do not check the required boxes. There have been instances where reporters have been left out of police briefings for critical reports.

In an unhealthy trend, also fuelled by the desire to get likes and retweets, police officers or law-enforcement agencies plan press conferences if it is convenient to them. In the absence of implementation of the media policy, this in many cases adversely impacts the accused. The process becomes the punishment.

A point suggested in the 2010 policy was that “no opinionated and judgmental statements should be made by the police while briefing the media.” In 2020, the then Bihar police chief Gupteshwar Pandey told press persons that making any kind of comment regarding the State Chief Minister was beyond the aukaat (status) of actor Rhea Chakraborty, who was being investigated in connection with the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Though Mr. Pandey later apologised for the statement, it sent the message that such conduct is acceptable if it suits the political narrative, for there was no known repercussion for his statement by the State or the Centre.

For the police to act as an extension of the political dispensation is not new. Foisting cases and arresting individuals who are inconvenient to the establishment is also common. The system provides impunity to such officials. But what is new is the acceptance of such conduct by the media and the public at large.

vijaita.singh@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Aug 5, 2022 1:15:48 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-police-and-the-journalist/article65586914.ece