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25 Apr 2024, Edition - 3208, Thursday

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Columns

Media Becoming A Monster

Covai Post Network

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Gurbir Singh

Freedom of speech is all good, but then what about the choices the media makes, what about running alternative media trials and passing reckless judgements? asks Gurbir Singh

The media blitz around the Sheena Bora murder case evaporated as fast as it had engulfed drawing rooms. Two things happened. After Indrani Mukerjea was granted jail custody, the daily television carnival around Mumbai’s Khar Police Station abruptly ended.

Second, Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria, who had stoked the media fire with his unprecedented daily briefings, was replaced by a more sober Ahmed Javed, who put a media gag on his officers. Suddenly, the ‘news’ dried up.

Here we are not exploring the ‘evil’ life and times of Indrani Mukerjea; or whether she wanted to kill her second son Mikhail from her first marriage so that her daughter Vidhie from her second marriage would inherit her wealth.

This is more about the opprobrium the media coverage of the Indrani-Sheena case has brought to Indian journalism. From TV screens screaming breaking news – “Indrani Ne Sandwich Khaya” to News X anchors yelling ‘Mukher..JEEE..YAAH’ outside the Worli home of the murder accused, the coverage showed journalistic illiteracy, and the ignorance of the law.

The least the News X anchors should know is how to pronounce the names of the promoters who started their channel! But the foot soldiers shouting outside the Khar Police Station are not so much to blame as their editors.

It is the newsroom bosses who have been forcing the boys on the ground to bring in new ‘twists’ on an hourly basis in a bid to outdo each other with sensationalism. There is no denying that the case is gripping. The contours of the crime are far ahead of the raciest of Mahesh Bhatt’s ‘Hollywood’ scripts.

But we journalists must realise lives are at stake. There is a family, many of whom may be innocent. The trial has not even begun, how can the media decide who is guilty?

It was embarrassing to see a Times Now reporter chasing accused Sanjeev Khanna at the airport demanding to know: ‘Why did you kill Sheena?’ and ‘What was your motive?’ Perhaps, the only network that covered the crime story with decorum was NDTV; it did not make unsubstantiated charges and took the story off prime time when it flagged.

Equally to blame for the media binge was the police. Even the clerk at Khar Police Station became an anonymous ‘source’ of what transpired during ‘interrogation’. The Bombay High Court when dealing with journalist J. Dey’s murder in 2011, restrained the cops from making inspired and anonymous leaks.

Updates on investigation the police wanted to communicate, the court pointed out, should be ‘on record’ and not anonymous ‘leaks’.

Similarly, in the Arushi murder case, the Supreme Court gave an interim direction in 2008 saying: “Both the press and the electronic media should exercise caution in publishing any news regarding the case in question, which may have the effect of prejudging the defence of the accused or damaging the reputation of any of the persons connected with the case.”

And when the media failed to ‘exercise caution’, the courts have passed gag orders as in the sexual harassment case against Justice Swatanteer Kumar. In the Sahara versus SEBI case, the Supreme Court, justifying the gag, said:

“Courts are duty bound…to protect the presumption of innocence which is now recognised by this court as a human right under Article 21…” We stand for the freedom of the press, but that cannot be equated with mediapersons running amuck conducting trials and becoming prosecution, and judge.

The Indrani case, as other such crime stories, should and must be covered. But editors must also spend time and money to train their reporters on the ethics of good journalism, and on the law that assumes a person is innocent till proven guilty.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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