Thursday, 31 December 2009

Vigilante Justice, Courtesy Media

My revulsion for S P S Rathore - especially the sight of him coming out smiling after the six months imprisonment verdict - is in danger of turning into sympathy. And all because of my profession.

I was watching television news this afternoon and saw the news flash about Rathore being unrepentant. Why? Because while coming out of the court after applying for anticipatory bail, he told the news cameras hounding him: "the day you can satisfy me you are a constitutional power on judicial matters, I will speak (to you)".

What is wrong with that? He is correct. He and other criminals are answerable to the courts where they present their defence. Not to hysterical television journalists.

I completely agree with Abha Rathore’s comment, “There are editors sitting in newsrooms passing judgments on the case, behaving like saviours of law and gaining mileage out of the entire episode.” She also has a point when she says that the media has already started the trial without waiting for them to file an appeal against the conviction by the lower court. The deadline for that was January 4. We may be aghast at the temerity of the man to appeal against the conviction, but, let’s face it, it is his right.

The Rathores have asked the court for protection from the media. And I am ashamed to admit it is probably a valid request. His behaviour all these years does not justify the media behaving like a pack of wolves. (Incidentally, it is only today that I learnt that the Rathores had filed a defamation case against one newspaper some years back. It is typical of the ostrich approach of our profession to our failings that we have kept silent about this).

Though nothing should surprise me any more about the electronic media, I was still aghast at the way they were conducting themselves. "The law is catching up" with Rathore, one channel said. Overlooking the minor point that the law had caught up with him and given him six months jail and then bail (which is also under the law). The point in question is that the sentence wasn't seen as adequate.

Rathore's wife was also the subject of sarcasm for mocking television cameras, saying don't push, take all the pictures you want. But what else can one say when being jostled by camera crew? And when she is being followed by a persistent reporter saying "anything you would like to say? anything about the case?" What is she supposed to say? If she says her husband is innocent (which is obviously what she will say), then she will be inviting further sarcasm on prime time.

There was this other gem on one channel in relation to the Madhukar Tandon case (the Rajasthan police officer who has not been arrested in 13 years on a rape charge): “Two states have either refused to track him down or arrest him.” Refused? Do these reporters/anchors know the meaning of the words they use?

And what has all this media hype resulted in? Things unheard of – like filing fresh FIRs in cases where conviction has been handed out. Legal experts including Ram Jethmalani and K T S Tulsi have pointed out that a person cannot be convicted for the same crime twice. Surely these people know more about the law than journalists do.

I am providing a link to an editorial in The Indian Express editorial, Call off the mob, which highlights the danger of the kind of media-generated public hysteria.

Indeed, the travesty of justice should not become an excuse for vigilante justice.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Media-manufactured Hysteria

Every time I see candlelight vigils for victims of injustice, I wonder how such a disparate group of people comes together. As a nation, we don’t really have a collective soul. Apathy is our first reaction to anything. So how come we turn out in hordes to hold candlelight vigils for Jessica Lal, Meher Bhargava, 26/11 victims. (Not sure if there was one for the Nithari victims, which says a lot about our so-called middle class vigilantes).

I thought the media – especially the electronic media – only disseminated information about the planned event but now am reasonably sure it helps in planning it as well – if not organising it.

The electronic media is setting itself up as the conscience keeper of the nation and the voice of the people. But many of its actions makes one wonder if it has a conscience at all. What it seems to have in the place of conscience is a TRP ticker, which dictates all its actions.

Take the case of candlelight vigils, which first started with the Jessica Lal case (I am not sure if it preceded or followed Rang De Basanti, which also showed a candlelight vigil). That may have been spontaneous but I doubt whether the many others were.

It makes for great visuals – grave faced people sitting with candles under a darkening sky. And it provides great soundbytes. So what if the people ranting in front of television cameras may not know very much about the case or about the law? And then there are the emotional SMS-es scrolling at the bottom of the screen. `Death to Rathore’, went one ridiculous SMS. The sight of a smirking Rathore would make any decent person’s blood boil. But `Death to Rathore’? This, we are told by hyperventilating star anchors of news shows, is a reflection of the people’s anger and distress.

But often this is nothing more than ill-informed hysteria whipped up by the media itself. There are enough examples of how media hype has led to situations escalating out of the control of authorities. Everyone remembers the coverage of the 26/11 attacks but think back to 1999 and the IC 814 hijacking. The relatives of the hostages gathered outside 7 Race Course Road, the television cameras and anchors went crazy getting bytes from them, demanding the government get their relatives out safely. I remember parallels being drawn by emotional relatives with Rubaiya Sayeed (militants were freed to secure the release of this kidnapped daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed) and how that was done because she was a VIP’s daughter. I have no doubt that the hysteria whipped up by the media had some role in the then government’s decision to release the hostages that the hijackers asked for. Should the government have given in to such emotional blackmail is another question. The point here is – should the media have become a tool of emotional blackmail?

The media does have a role in highlighting inadequacies in the system. But this has to be done by well-researched stories, shorn of drama. Not by organising vigils and soliciting angry SMS-es.