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Who needs Reality TV?

Arundhati Roy
December 22, 2006

The Supreme Court of India has sentenced Mohammad Afzal, Accused No. 1 in the Parliament Attack case, to death. It acknowledged that the evidence against him was not direct, only circumstantial, but in its now famous statement it said: “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, has shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”

Is the ‘collective conscience’ the same as majority opinion? Would it be fair to say that it is fashioned by the information we receive? And, therefore, that in this case, the mass media have played a pivotal role in determining the final court verdict? If so, has it been accurate and truthful?

A small group of scholars, writers and lawyers has followed the case over the years and meticulously documented media reports. Some of this work has recently been published by Penguin Books as a reader (13 December: The Strange Case of The Parliament Attack). They have found that in the early days of the trial, Delhi Police’s Special Cell was spectacularly successful in getting both the print and electronic media (with a few honourable exceptions), to put out its entirely unsubstantiated claims as the ‘truth’, making it seem as though the impending judicial trial was just a formality. Now, five years later, when disturbing questions are being raised about the Parliament Attack, is the Special Cell, once again, cleverly exploiting the frantic hunt for ‘breaking news’?

Suddenly, spurious ‘exposés’ are finding their way on to prime time TV. Unfortunately, some of India’s best, most responsible news channels have been caught up in this game, in which carelessness and incomprehension is as deadly as malice. A few weeks ago, we had a fiasco on CNN-IBN.

Last week (December 16), on a 90-minute prime time show, NDTV showcased an ‘exclusive’ video of Mohammad Afzal’s ‘confession’ made in police custody, in the days immediately following his arrest. At no point was it clarified that the ‘confession’ was five years old.

Much has been said about the authenticity, reliability and legality of confessions taken in police custody, as well as the circumstances under which this particular ‘confession’ was extracted. Because of the very real danger that custodial torture will replace real investigation, the Indian Penal Code does not admit confessions made in police custody as legal evidence in a criminal trial. Pota (Prevention of Terrorism Act) was considered an outrage on civil rights and was eventually withdrawn, primarily because it made confessions obtained in police custody admissible as legal evidence. In fact, in the case of Afzal’s ‘confession’, the Supreme Court said the Special Cell had violated even the tenuous safeguards provided under Pota, and set it aside as being illegal and unreliable. Even before this, the High Court had already reprimanded the Special Cell sharply for forcing Afzal to incriminate himself publicly in a ‘media confession’.

So what made NDTV showcase this thoroughly discredited old ‘confession’ all over again? Why now? How did the Special Cell video find its way into their hands? Does it have something to do with the fact that Afzal’s clemency petition is pending with the President and a curative petition asking for a retrial is pending in the Supreme Court? In her column in this paper (Death of the Middle ground, December 17), Barkha Dutt, Managing Editor of NDTV, said the channel spent many hours debating what the ‘fairest’ way to show this video was. Clearly, it was a serious decision and demands to be discussed seriously.

At the start of the show, for several minutes, the image of Afzal ‘confessing’ was inset in a text that said “Afzal ne court mein gunaah qabool kiya tha” (Afzal had admitted his guilt in court). This is blatantly untrue. Then, for a full 15 minutes, the ‘confession’ ran without comment. After this, an anchor came on and said, “Sansad par hamle ki kahani, Afzal ki zubaani.” (The story of the Parliament Attack, in Afzal’s words.) This, too, is a travesty of the truth. Well into the programme, a reporter informed us that Afzal had since withdrawn this ‘confession’ and had claimed it had been extracted under torture.

The smirking anchor then turned to one of the panelists, S.A.R. Geelani, who was also one of the accused in the case (and who knows a thing or two about torture and the Special Cell), and remarked that if this confession was “forced”, then Afzal was a very good actor. The anchor has clearly never experienced torture, or even read the wonderful Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano — “The electric cattle prod turns anyone into a prolific storyteller.” Nor has he known what it’s like to be held in police custody in Delhi while his family was hostage (as Afzal’s was) in the war zone that is Kashmir.

Later on, the ‘confession’ was juxtaposed with what the channel said was Afzal’s statement to the court, but was actually the text of a letter he wrote to his High Court lawyer in which he implicates State Task Force (STF) in Kashmir and describes how in the months before the Parliament Attack he was illegally detained and tortured by the STF. NDTV does not tell us that a Deputy Superintendent of the STF has since confirmed that he did illegally detain and torture Afzal. Instead, it uses Afzal’s letter to discredit him further. The bold caption at the bottom of the frame read: “Afzal ka badalta hua baiyan.” (Afzal’s changing statements.)

There is another serious ethical issue. In Afzal’s confession to the Special Cell in December 2001 (as opposed to his ‘media confession’), he implicated SAR Geelani and said he was the mastermind of the conspiracy. While this was in line with the Special Cell’s chargesheet, it turned out to be false, and Geelani was acquitted by the Supreme Court. Why was this portion of Afzal’s confession left out? So that the confession would seem less constructed, more plausible? Who made that decision to leave it out? NDTV or the Special Cell?

All this makes the broadcast of this programme a seriously prejudicial act. It wasn’t surprising to watch the ‘collective conscience’ of society forming its opinion as the show unfolded. The SMS messages on the ticker tape said: “Afzal ko boti boti mein kaat ke kutton ko khila do. Afzal ke haath aur taang kaat ke, road mein bheek mangvaney chahiye.” (Cut him into bits and feed him to the dogs. Cut off his arms and legs and make him beg.) “Hang him by his balls in Lal Chowk.” “Hang him and hang those who are supporting him.” “Even without Sharia courts, we seem to be doing just fine.”

For the record, the reporter credited several times on the programme for procuring the video from the Special Cell has been previously
exposed for publishing falsehoods: on the ‘encounter’ in Ansal Plaza; on the Iftikhar Gilani case; on the S.A.R. Geelani, and now on this one.

This kind of thing really makes you wonder whether media houses have an inside track on the police and intelligence agencies, or whether it’s the other way around.

The quietest guest on the panel was M.K. Dhar, a former Joint Director of the Intelligence Bureau. He was pretty enigmatic. He certainly didn’t repeat what he has said in his astonishingly frank book Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled. (Manas Publications, 2005): “Some day or the other, taking advantage of the weakening fabric of our democracy, some unscrupulous intelligence men may gang up with ambitious Army Brass and change the political texture of the nation…”

Weakening fabric of our democracy. I couldn’t have put it better.

(Arundhati Roy is a Booker Prize-winning writer. She has written the introduction to 13 December: The Strange Case of The Parliament Attack)


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