It is not just the ‘loony’ ‘vernacular’ media, as many are given to believe, but even the ‘respectable’, ‘mainstream’, ‘national’ English-language press in India that have sedulously cultivated the notion of ‘Islamic terrorism,’ so much so that the image of Muslims in general being either terrorists or their sympathizers enjoys wide currency today. While it is true that some of the most dastardly terror attacks that India has witnessed in recent years have been the handiwork of some Muslims—and this is something that the vast majority of the Indian Muslims themselves deplore—it is also undeniable that Muslims have been unfairly blamed for many other attacks or alleged ‘terror plots’ by the police as well as the media in which they have had no role to play at all. Many Muslims—and others, too—believe that these false allegations are not innocent errors, but can be said to represent a deliberate and concerted effort to defame and demonise an entire community and the religion with which it is associated.
That, precisely, is what a recently-released report, brought out by a team of secular, leftist non-Muslim activists from Karnataka argues. Titled ‘Media on Terror’, and issued by the activist group ‘Column 9’ [so named, the report says, because in a standard newspaper of eight columns, issues and perspectives that deserve a column of their own generally go missing), it is a detailed examination of the coverage and projection of ‘terrorism’ in the state of Karnataka. It is based on an analysis of the reporting of ‘terrorism’ in the Bangalore editions of leading Kannada and English newspapers over several months in 2008, supplemented with in-depth interviews with journalists, stringers and police officials in Honnali, Davangere, Hubli, Kalghatgi and Bangalore—places where, the media had reported, ‘terrorists’—all of them incidentally Muslims—had been apprehended. This was a period when the media was awash with stories of Muslim ‘terrorists’ allegedly plotting to ‘take over’ the whole of Karnataka.
A striking finding of the report is that the media in Karnataka, both Kannada and English, ‘dangerously seemed to pronounce judgments on those arrested, much before the due process of law was played out’. In fact, the report says, there was ‘no material basis to most of the news reports’. The tone of their reporting was sharply ‘jingoistic’, and ‘none of the standards’ expected of professional journalism ‘seemed to be in evidence’. Alleged terrorists—in many cases innocent Muslim youths arbitrarily picked up by the police—were subjected to ‘media trials’ based simply on unsubstantiated police claims. The report speaks of ‘the blurring of lines between police officials and investigative journalists, who seemed to pre-empt “official” investigation.’ The language and rhetoric used in the reporting reflected, the report says, an obvious and deep-rooted bias against Muslims, and a deliberate effort to create a sense of siege among Hindus.
Scores of sensational stories of Muslims being picked up for being ‘suspected’ terrorists published in the Karnataka media were based on information allegedly received from what were routinely called ‘highly placed police officials’ or ‘intelligence bureau officials’. Predictably, the report says, the names of these police or investigating officials were not provided, which meant that these stories—many of which were patently fabricated—could not be substantiated by these officials. In numerous instances, the reports were based on ‘news’ wholly manufactured by reporters and stringers, as evidenced from the denials that emerged from the police officials themselves a day after these reports were published, which many papers chose to ignore. In almost all such cases, the newspapers did not bother to issue an apology despite irrefutable confirmation of their falsity. In most instances where the stories about alleged Muslim terrorists were based on information supplied by the police, journalists simply asked no questions at all as to the process of investigation that took place within the police stations despite it being common knowledge that torture is widely used by the police in such cases to extract information or else to force detainees to admit to crimes that they have had no hand in. Consequently, the arrested Muslims were uncritically presented in the media as ‘hardcore Islamist terrorists’, even without the courts having made their judgments. By presenting no version other than that of the police, the report remarks, the ‘investigative’ aspect of journalism in Karnataka on the matter of alleged Muslim involvement in ‘terrorism’ has in fact been reduced to what it calls ‘stenographic reporting’. The report adds that the few journalists who tried to balance the stories with the other views about reported incidents about Muslim ‘terrorism’ or foiled ‘terrorist plots’ rarely found space in the newspapers.
In this regard, it is significant to note that, as the report says, it was mainly at the lower-rungs of the police that journalists depended for their ‘stories’ (often, for a price it suggests). The journalists interviewed by the team that commissioned the report confirmed that to sustain their relations with police constables they needed to ‘keep them happy’ and desist from ‘undertaking any steps to antagonize them’. This, the report points out, greatly affected the credibility of their reports since they assumed the police version as valid and often failed to critique or to ask any questions about that version. The report adds:
‘Across the board, journalists specifically mentioned lower rung police officials, including constables and head constables within the concerned police stations, as sources of information. The journalists’ access to these police officials was determined entirely on the basis of their personal rapport and connections staked out within the police stations. It was fairly obvious that the journalists nurtured these relationships with the officials very carefully since the relationships were the base for a potential “exclusive” story”[…] Despite the team’s repeated questions seeking names of police officials who acted as sources of information, not a single reporter was willing to share these details.’
Another alarming finding of the report was the arbitrary branding by both the police and the media of literature and CDs allegedly seized by the police from the Muslims who had been arrested as ‘jihadi materials’. These were presented as ‘proof’ of those arrested as being behind acts of terror or even as would-be terrorists. In many cases, the police officials simply refused to share the material with journalists, at most showing them only photos of the covers of books seized from the arrested Muslims. Amazingly, the report relates, according to the journalists they interviewed, ‘evidence of the books indeed being jihadi materials lay in the fact that most were books written in Urdu.’ In one location where alleged Muslim terrorists had been arrested and so-called jihadi material recovered from them, journalists interviewed by the team mentioned that the police had produced a panel of Urdu experts at a press briefing to confirm that the seized materials were indeed ‘jihadi’. Strikingly, none of the journalists had any clue about the identity of these so-called Urdu ‘experts’. A journalist in Honnali spoke about a particular CD that was seized by the police from an arrested Muslim, whom the police and the media had alleged was a ‘terrorist’. Far from being incendiary material, as was alleged, the CD, it turned out, was actually about an orphanage. Another journalist provided the team that had prepared the report a photograph taken on a mobile phone, where they could read the titles of two books since they were printed in English—one of these was ‘The Spirit of Islam’ and the other was the ‘Holy Quran’, books that, needless to say, are not proscribed and are readily available in the market. In this regard, the report rightly asks, ‘How can possession of the Holy Koran be presented as proof that the people owning them are suspected terrorists? Why weren’t any questions or objections raised about this new tendency of the Indian police who chose to present the possession of the Holy Koran as proof of possible terrorism?’. Thus, the report argues, ‘It was very clear that the journalists had labeled books and other seized materials primarily on the basis of their interactions with the police and, to some extent, on the basis of internalized personal prejudice’.
Yet another striking finding of the report is that not a single journalist whom the team met and who had reported on the arrest of alleged Muslim terrorists had received clear instructions or editorial guidelines pertaining to coverage of sensitive issues such as terrorism from their respective editorial chiefs. Many journalists spoke of the pressure to meet the evening deadlines for daily reports, and so, they admitted, there were several occasions when they did not have the time to verify the claims of police officials in cases of real or alleged terrorist attacks or plots, and merely carried police version without cross-checking. Equally distressingly, the report unveiled, reporters located in regions that usually received no print space or attention in the press found themselves catapulted to attention through the sensationalist, and often false, reports that they filed during the time of the arrests’ and got front page coverage. The reporters also mentioned the pressure exerted on them by the state bureau chiefs to file reports that were “exclusive” to the organisation. This conduced, the report says, to sensationalism and even to the fabrication of reports. As the report puts it, ‘In the consequent one-upmanship created by the pressure to perform within the confines of a profit-driven industry, the journalists admitted to several compromises on the articles’ authenticity and their contents.’ Some journalists interviewed unanimously admitted that the reports they had filed were intentionally sensationalist in nature. According to them, what was of paramount importance was for them to ‘prove’ that the arrested persons were in fact guilty, that they were in fact members of ‘Islamist terrorist’ organisations, even much before the courts were given the chance to lay down their verdicts. Sadly, as the report says, these reporters saw their ‘sensationalist reporting’, not as a crime, but, rather, as ‘a service that they were rendering to the nation’—they claimed that in this way they were exposing ‘hardened criminals’ and potential terrorists who were capable of inflicting much harm to society.
One of the persons interviewed by the team, the reporter for the Kannada Prabha in Hubli, openly admitted that ‘60% of the reports that he had filed were false and inaccurate’. Similarly, the Hubli reporter for the Times of India admitted to using a photograph of an unrelated dargah with his report about an alleged Muslim terrorist camp, and and falsely described the flag near the dargah as a Pakistani one. In fact, it so turned out, the correspondent himself had never been to the location. In an incident in coastal Karnataka, after two Muslim men were paraded naked and brutally assaulted in public by Hindu Yuva Sena activists for transporting cows, a Muslim protest rally was taken out in Udipi. Kannada papers falsely alleged that the demonstrators had unfurled a Pakistani flag and raised pro-Pakistan slogans and, without any evidence, accused them of being linked to Al-Qaeda and the Lashkar-e Tayyeba. Although the police denied these claims, the papers pressed on with their accusations. In another bizarre case, a Muslim man from Bangalore associated with the Muslim IT Association was wrongly accused by the Times of India of being linked to a terrorist organization. Despite these blatant falsehoods, the report notes with distress, in the overwhelming majority of cases the newspapers did not issue any apologies or acknowledge their (possibly deliberate) errors.
The team also met with senior police officials in Bangalore and Davangere. It found that ‘they appeared to be less concerned and engaged with the prevention of biased media reporting and introspection into the role of the police.’ They argued that it was not the responsibility of the police to challenge inaccurate reports filed by journalists, and that this was also time-consuming. The SP of Davangere, the report says, ‘readily acknowledged the leakage of information to the press through the lower rung officials though they were expressly forbidden from doing so.’ She admitted its continuance despite the issuing of a whip asking all police officials below the rank of SP to refrain from interactions with journalists, and suggested that journalists should depend on official press communiqués released by SPs.
Among the many cases of false framing of Muslims as ‘terrorists’ in Karnataka that the report highlights, one deserves special mention to indicate the deep-rootedness of anti-Muslim prejudices in the state machinery, particularly since the BJP emerged as such a powerful force in Karnataka. The team met with judicial officer Jinaralkar at the judicial magistrate’s first class court at Honnali, where two Muslim youths, Abdullah and Nasir, had been arrested on grounds of allegedly being terrorists. Jinaralkar defended his awarding of the two to police custody, although they were initially arrested and presented as bike thieves, a decision the media highlighted and lauded, crediting the judge with foresight in identifying the arrested duo as ‘suspected terrorists’. The judge explained his decision by stating that the material seized from them when they were arrested indicated that they might in fact have been terrorists, rather than bike-robbers as was initially claimed: duplicate identity cards, a dagger, a map of south India with red marks against Udupi and Goa, an American dollar, two pieces of paper, with the phrase www.com written on one and ‘Jungle King Behind Back Me’ on another.
The judge told the team, ‘When I looked at these materials in their entirety, several things were clear to me. I felt that these were definitely not just bike thieves—why would bike thieves carry around duplicate identity cards and a map of south India? The fact that they had an American dollar seemed to indicate their international links, while the paper with www.com indicated that they were tech-savvy […] Definitely enough grounds in my opinion to grant the police their custody to facilitate their further investigations’ .
The report indicates that journalists in Karnataka (and this probably holds true for the rest of the country) typically see terrorism as a specifically Muslim phenomenon, and do not even consider the possibility of Hindu ‘terrorists’, although, as the report points out, in Karnataka today, particularly with the rise of the BJP, scores of incidents of terror against Muslims (as well as Dalits) by Hindu groups have been recorded. Predictably, the media does not describe these as instances of ‘Hindu terrorism’. This points to what the report terms as the dangerously marked ‘internalisation of Hindu nationalism’ by media professionals in Karnataka, and the projection by the media of the Hindutva lobby as the presumed ‘sole representative’ of the Hindus.