Time for the media to let the courts do their job!

A meeting organized at the Press Club of India on 28th December 2013 saw many eminent members of the media and academic world reflect on the suicide of Khurshid Anwar, the slander and vilification he had to endure and trial by media, which acted as judge, jury, prosecutor and declared that he was a rapist even before a formal complaint had been lodged.

Om Thanvi (Editor, Jansatta), Ali Javed (Elder brother and Professor at Delhi University), Annapurna Jha (Senior Journalist, The Pioneer), Prabhat Shunglu(Journalist), Dr. Meenakshi Sundriyal (Wife and Associate Professor at JNU), Deepak Sharma (Aaj Tak), Sheeba Aslam Fehmi (Friend and witness to the trial on Facebook), Prof. Purushottam Agrawal (Academic and former UPSC member), Amit Sengupta (Founder of Hard News), Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy (Professor, JNU), Prof Chamanlal (JNU), Ish Mishra (Professor, Hindu College), Ajay Patnaik (Professor, JNU), Professor Malakar (JNU), Utpala Shukla (Co-worker, Insitute for Social Democracy) were present and expressed their views on the matter. The session was moderated by Rahul Jalali (Ex-President, Press Club of India)

You can find many videos from that day on this blog. Here is a detailed summary of the issues raised and questions asked by each of the speakers.

Om Thanvi

Khurshid Anwar was forced to kill himself by the concerted vilification campaign that was undertaken against him. He had resolved to fight this. However, when his own colleagues and friends turned on him without hearing his side of the story, he was depressed; it was this depression that took its toll and forced Khurshid Anwar to take this extreme step. The question that arises is what brought about this turn of events.

First and foremost, the media, especially television media coverage of this campaign of slander was a turning point. Television media reaches a large number of people; while print media is restricted to the literate people, television media reaches everyone. It was this outreach that was abused by irresponsible TV journalists. While Thanvi resolved to stand with the victim if an investigation revealed that a sexual assault had indeed taken place; however, an investigation has not been conducted into the matter. Instead, educated and informed people handed over the video testimony of the complainant to the TV media which mindlessly attacked Khurshid Anwar without any evidence. Even though they interviewed him, they did not broadcast his full statement. Facts were only selectively disclosed to suit the story that needed to be told. For justice to be served, the unedited version of all aspects needs to be disclosed fully.

The nature of the TV news programme was criminal and illegal irrespective of Khurshid Anwar’s guilt. It is not surprising that it drove Khurshid to kill himself. Instead of presenting news, these programmes are more of a performance. Unsurprisingly, recruits of the NSD are recruited to be presenters of such programmes.

Apart from the TV media, social media is being used by uninformed people in an irresponsible manner. This raises some very important issues about the video that was circulated using social media that played the crucial role in vilification of Khurshid Anwar. It also raises very important question about the role of some activists, in particular, Madhu Kishwar. What gave her the right to set up a police station or court room in her office? On what standing did she record the complainant’s statement. That any video recording is meant for and can be viewed should have been kept in mind while making any such recording. This recording which clearly revealed the complainant’s identity-revealing which is a criminal act- was then unlawfully circulated. Madhu Kishwar has since denied circulating the video, and said that she had given the CD containing the video recording to the complainant. Even if this was the case, did she not maintain a record for herself? Was this record kept safely away in a safe? What about the technician who made the CD: did he/she have access to it? It is sufficient to say that a priori no one is outside the ambit of suspicion, especially not the person responsible for making the CD in the first instance.

Madhu Kishwar has no respect for the law. She has herself admitted to bribing police officers to prevent her brother being victim of false charges in a similar case. She claimed that she knows that her brother was innocent. . However, by that same logic, Thanvi pointed out that all of Khurshid Anwar’s friends and family are convinced of his innocence. Why did she not, then, give him the same benefit of the doubt?

It is plain to see that this issue is not about gender-anyone can be the aggrieved party. Therefore, if the victim’s identity is to be kept secret by law, then it is only natural that the same treatment be reserved for the accused as well. The accused should also not be treated like a criminal a priori. Thanvi said that he was not against the law. If a crime has been committed, let law take its due course. However, those who did not let this happen should be held accountable.

Ali Javed

This case of Khurshid Anwar brings out the way in which hi-tech Khap Panchayats are being created on the social media. And this has been facilitated by people like Madhu Kishwar and Rajat Sharma. He questioned why Madhu Kishwar did not record Khurshid Anwar’s statement as well. He said that it was Madhu Kishwar and Rajat Sharma’s responsibility as citizens and a journalist to take the CD, that they have otherwise used to conduct the character assassination of Khurshid Anwar, to the police and make them take cognizance of a crime that has ostensibly been committed. Instead, Madhu Kishwar and Rajat Sharma took law into their own hands.

Madhu Kishwar has completely disregarded the law. She has presumed the guilt of Khurshid Anwar, which is apparent in the way she prompted the complainant during the filming of the video. One of the complainant’s friends says in the video that Khurshid Anwar asked her to stay as well to take care of the complainant. However, she refused to stay behind. So Madhu Kishwar comments in this tape how this friend had a lucky escape. This shows that as far as Madhu Kishwar is concerned, she has assumed Khurshid Anwar’s guilt without any investigation whatsoever.

Khurshid Anwar was a thorough feminist. He passionately fought for justice for the December 16 gangrape victim. Ali Javed also narrated how Khurshid Anwar used to take issue with him if he told his wife to prepare tea for them, saying that this was male chauvinism. In this context, it is even more unbelievable that this happened to Khurshid Anwar.

Khurshid’s version of events should also be shown on television. Ali Javed, however, stopped short of blaming all of electronic media as there are responsible people are also part of it. He narrated how Ravish Kumar of NDTV, when approached to make a news programme on the case, said that they will do so only when the facts of the matter become clear. They refused to make a news programme based on hearsay as they were not in the business of garnering cheap publicity. Ali Javed said that channels like India TV are in the media business for just that.

He appealed to the media and all present to take the case to the logical conclusion. An FIR has been registered and the due course of the law needs to be followed.

Annapurna Jha

As a neutral third party and as a journalist, Jha said that it is clear that Khurshid Anwar was a victim of a media trial. In this light, the media needs to introspect. This is especially true for the television media which thrives on sensationalizing cases like these. It is a matter of basic media ethics that no matter how convinced one is of the facts, both sides have to be presented for a balanced view on any matter. Self regulation in this regard is of utmost importance as external curbs on freedom of expression of the media are undesirable. Regulation of social media is also a pressing concern.

Prabhat Shunghlu

Shunghlu agreed with Annapurna Jha on the issue of self regulation, He said that a ‘Lakshman Rekha’ needs to be drawn by the media for itself and adhered to so that no external party has to do it. However, this line has been repeatedly been crossed. It is clear that this is because vested interests that benefit from this violation, as adherence may adversely affect their TRPs. He said the it is time for the media community to introspect and take responsibility of their claims and statements in order to be a responsible fourth pillar of democracy

At this point, Om Thanvi interjected with an instance of how social media jumped to presume the guilt of Khurshid Anwar in the atmosphere that was created on social media. He spoke of how social media ‘found’ a suicide note before investigative agencies could even look into the matter of the suicide note. When they did and declared that no such note had been found, a blogger from London began to claim that it was natural that the suicide note which would ostensibly incriminate Anwar was bound to ‘disappear’.

Dr. Meenakshi Sundriyal

Sundriyal said she spoke at this juncture, not only as Khurshid Anwar’s partner for more than 20 years, but also as a person who feels very strongly and has worked actively for gender justice. She said that the need of the hour is to discuss media trials as the scuttled the legitimate process of the law. By this very nature these media trials are anti-women. Therefore the questions being raised need to be considered seriously. Moreover, this brazen illegitimate vigilantism of the media and social media needs to be subjected to intense scrutiny. She said she was raising these issues as in her opinion these media trials were not going to stop of their own accord. She appealed to the responsible sections of the media to come together and subject themselves to this scrutiny.

Deepak Sharma 

Sharma narrated how soon after Khurshid Anwar’s demise, he had put up an emotional post on Facebook, which he was lambasted for. He then surmised that perhaps an investigation should be carried out before making comments on social media as well. So he did just that and enquired at the police station about the case. He said that in his 22-year-old career as a journalist, he had never seen a case as peculiar as this in which the case of rape is being constructed on the basis of assumptions.

Four letters were found on Khurshid Anwar’s computer. In the first of these letters, which was addressed to Ashutosh, Anwar spelled out the methodical way in which he was being embroiled in conspiracy.  In the second letter, which was addressed to Nalini, he raised some very important questions which are now being considered in the police investigation. The third letter was written to the complainant. Sharma said that he had never in his career seen the accused trying to contact and confront the accused. There was complete transparency as far as the accused is concerned in this case. The fourth letter, written in Hindi, is the one that is being called a suicide note. In it he concluded that he was a victim of a larger conspiracy.

Sheeba Aslam Fehmi

She began by clarifying the claim that is circulating in the media that Khurshid Anwar said that the alleged sexual encounter between the complainant and Anwar was consensual. She said that a fake ID of Khurshid Anwar was created on Facebook, and someone posing as Anwar made this statement about the alleged encounter being a consensual one. This is what spread all over the media, and is untrue.

She proceeded to say that people who have credibility in society as left activists and women activists should be held responsible. She said she approached Kavita Krishnaan, but she refused to meet and hear Khurshid Anwar’s side of the story.

In order to highlight the irresponsible nature of some sections of television media, she narrated an incident which had occurred the previous year in Punjab. She said that a girl was given a lift by her male classmate in his car which was stopped by the police during the course of a routing check. Television media personnel that happened to be present at the scene for some other matter, as the self-appointed moral police began filming them, even though they were doing nothing. The girl repeatedly requested these media people to stop doing so as her conservative family would not understand this matter. She asked them to stop, and said that if they did not, she would be forced to kill herself. They refused to comply, and broadcast it in the most heinous manner possible on their channel. The broken and mangled body of the girl was later discovered on some railway tracks later. Sheeba said this was indicative of the callousness of the media in their pursuit of cheap publicity and TRPs.

Purushottam Agrawal

Agrawal commented on self regulation and how we are in a Catch-22 situation. The media understandably does not want state regulation; however, no other alternative exists if people in the media are not responsible with their claims and statements. The recent IT Act, specifically section 66A, which seeks to prevent the kind of irresponsible and dangerous reporting that took place during the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai, is a matter of concern in this regard. We need to be careful about these laws.

It is also important to be careful on social media. People are always in such a rush to appear politically correct on social media, that they jumped to attack the alleged perpetrator without examining his own claims. His own friends and colleagues, women activists and left activists are guilty of this. Khurshid Anwar was literally begging these people to ensure that an FIR is filed so that he could present his version of events so that he could clear his name. This, however, was not forthcoming.

In the context of the programme on IndiaTV, no one is speaking about the timing of the broadast, or the timing of the filing of the FIR, or how it has been linked to the December 16 gangrape case. These aspects point to Khurshid Anwar being a victim of a larger conspiracy.

Rahul Jalali interjected and said that discussion regulation of the media is not sufficient; it needs to be linked to the regulation of the ownership of media which is non-existent. This is extremely worrying as media is increasingly moving towards monopoly ownership.

Amit Sengupta

Sengupta took the opportunity to announce the constitution of the Committee for Fair Trials and Justice of which Manisha Sethi and Apoorvanand are conveners. It has been constituted as an open forum to raise and discuss questions about the lynching done by social media between the Madhu Kishwars of the left and the right which do not help gender equality, which do not help feminism, and only serve to promote fascism and a totalitarian regime.

Kamal Mitra Chenoy

He said the question of gender justice as per the laws is still alive, especially since Justice Verma in his recommendations to the government reversed the burden of proof in rape cases from the complainant to the accused. Two people-Madhu Kishwar and Kavita Krishnan exploited this and used social media irresponsibly to lynch Khurshid Anwar. He said that these activists, as a result of the wide reach of TV media, want to be seen on TV. This trend is dangerous as it makes them careless.

The discourse today has legitimately been about regulation and self regulation of the media. If the discourse on media from places such as Kashmir is looked at, there is criticism of the media from the other side, against state control. Therefore, a nuanced approach is required.

It is also important to turn the scrutiny on the National Commission for Women. They claimed that the CD with the complainant’s testimony sat on their desks for four days without anyone’s knowledge, and no one knew where it came from. He wondered how this could have happened.

As far as the media is concerned, there used to be careful surveys of media ownership. He was part of the Second Press Commission which was constituted to look into these matters. However, their conclusions were unpalatable to the media barons, as no such Commission has been convened since. This was a cause for concern that the media was carrying a particular agenda, especially because for a media baron, the media is nothing more than a money making enterprise.

Professor Chamanlal

He pointed out the case such as this serve to destroy relationships between men and women. While rape is a heinous crime and women’s rights are a huge issue, sequestering the rights of men from that of women will only serve to further destroy the relations between men and women. These forces are strengthening fascism.

Ish Mishra

Mishra said that educated people on Facebook were keeping their mind in cold storage and making irresponsible statements.

He then raised questions about inconsistencies in the stories that were circulating on social media, and commented on the how it was indeed the first he had ever heard of the accused requesting the complainant repeatedly to go to the police.

He too pointed to the existence of a conspiracy to silence Khurshid Anwar’s acerbic criticism of both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism. In this context, he quotes the prosecutor at the trial of Antonio Gramsci who said of Gramsci that “For twenty years we must stop this mind from functioning”, and drew parallels with Khurshid Anwar’s criticism being silenced.

Ajay Patnaik

Patnaik said that it was difficult for media to self regulate as it was ideologically divided. However, media is moving towards corporate ownership and will be monopolized very soon. He pointed out that Khurshid Anwar had been strongly criticizing communal forces, and since corporate interests have swayed towards the right, this was antithetical to them.

He said that there will be others who will be lambasted and cornered for their views and thus we needed to prepare ourselves to fight this. He also was encouraged about this fight as many young people had picked up the cudgels and very prepared to take the struggle forward.

Professor Malakar

Malakar said that he was not worried about corporate ownership of media per se. However, private forced, terrorist forces, anti-social forces and communal forces are imposing control over the media through this corporate ownership which was a cause for concern. He said that forces from the extreme left and the extreme right seemed to be going hand in hand and stood united against Khurshid Anwar. He resolved to take Anwar’s struggle against these forces forward.

 Utpala Shukla

She said she and her female co-workers had utmost confidence in Khurshid Anwar and felt very safe in his presence. In fact, whenever work brought her to Delhi, she and her femal co-workers would always stay with him.

She lamented at the fact that while the discussion about trial of Khurshid Anwar by mainstream media could be held here in this forum, there was little space to discuss problems with the social media.

Rahul Jalali then concluded the session with a warning that we already have many Rupert Murdochs in India with no constitutional provisions to protect the fourth pillar of democracy from such forces. He quoted Sameer Jain in this context who had once said that he doesn’t care about th news, but cares only about advertising. He warned that we are being regulated without any explicit regulation by way of corporate control of the media, and this is paving the way of a new form of dictatorship.

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