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From Gyanvapi to Aryan Khan, Can Police & Media Be Held Accountable?

Both the police and media need to stop acting as if they are divine and infallible.

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Opinion
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Everyone is entitled to their opinions, freedom of speech and personal views, as also to defend them, as per the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution. Narratives, however, are based on both facts and presumptions. But while facts are undeniable and verifiable truths, it is presumptions that distort narratives. Something similar is being seen with the way the Indian media and the Indian police and law enforcement agencies have dealt with recent incidents, including the Gyanvapi row and the Aryan Khan 'case'.

Mens rea (intention and knowledge), as well as ‘motive’ (reason), are essential elements in criminology. While some acts can be crimes without mens rea or motive, most would have to stand these two tests to be categorised as crimes, legally. These phrases are, however, essential only for the police and judiciary, not for an ordinary man – the media included. The standard of proof and evidence for a layman is different from that of an expert. The media’s coverage of events and incidents is no different, and often, most media falter on these counts.

Snapshot
  • Mens rea (intention and knowledge) and ‘motive’ (reason) are essential factors only for the police and judiciary, not for an ordinary man – the media included.

  • Indian media channels often indulge in ‘first past the post’ races based on half-cooked, often premature and out-of-context ‘stories’.

  • A recent statement by the RSS Chief on the Gyanvapi mosque row was reported, interpreted and twisted differently by different sections of the media. Separately, no channel has openly apologised after the Aryan Khan case for their sensationalist reportage that tarnished his image.

  • ‘Diva Cops’ and ‘Diva Media’ need to be held accountable equally. Neither is a picture of divinity or infallibility.

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Can Harm to Reputation Be Reversed?

When such narrative-building turns negative, when it harms the body, mind, and the reputation of a community or person, it becomes problematic. The harm or injury inflicted in such cases can be debilitating and irrevocable.

Indian media channels often indulge in ‘first-past-the-post’ races based on half-cooked, often premature and out-of-context ‘stories’. With not just TRPs but business and profitability at stake too, there is intense competition, and that’s visible in the theatrics of such reportage. Sensationalism pays as much as ‘UsainBoltism’, perhaps more, with an occasional ‘Ben Johnson’ falling by the wayside. Consequently, the number of media houses held accountable for incorrectness or prejudicial reportage is far less compared to the distortions they propagate.

When premature and prejudiced information is disseminated through mass media – television, newspapers, and now social media – people with an average understanding of a subject are easily influenced into forming opinions.

While this is in no way a judgment of the public’s intellect, the first impression is often the last impression for most people.

Investigative journalism and media thrive on ‘leaks’ – official leaks from anonymous sources, leaks that people do not want to be attributed to themselves. Then there are leaks that are deliberate, more in the nature of ‘sabotage’. Leaks, inevitably, are deliberate and aimed at putting out half-truths (not necessarily falsehoods), thereby creating one-sided opinions.

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The Many Interpretations of Mohan Bhagwat's Comments

How to handle ‘trials by media’ is a question that does not have simple answers. Existing solutions, both preventive and punitive, have failed to put an end to such 'trials'. The Press Council of India and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) are not very effective. Other mechanisms like ordinary civil and criminal laws – filing criminal cases or civil suits for compensation and defamation, etc, are also insufficient. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Minorities Commissions, Women’s Commissions, etc, do try to help the situation, but by the time they intervene, the damage has already taken place. Self-censorship or restraint is not an option either in the world of cut-throat competition.

The line between restraint and media freedom is extremely thin. Mostly, the freedom of speech and expression wins the day because of the extensive clout and followership media enjoys. Quite often, the viewership of the media channels is a captive audience that does not even switch between channels to know the other side of the story. Most channels have their own ideological interpretations of happenings.

The recent statement by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Chief on the Gyanvapi mosque row, that people should not try to find ‘Shivlings’ underneath all mosques and that all Indian Muslims have Hindu ancestry, were also reported (or ignored), interpreted and twisted differently by different sections of the media.

I, for one, believe that the statement, coming from a seasoned person like him, was made to calm frayed tempers.

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Have Channels Apologised to Aryan Khan?

The Narcotics Control Bureau’s (NCB) clean chit to star-son Aryan Khan damaged the youngster’s reputation to no end, but it also subjected him to overwhelming media attention. A section of media that had gone hysterical over the initial reports – virtually trespassing all limits, with leaked or distorted facts and, at times, inadequate knowledge of law or procedure – had to eat the humble pie when the youngster was absolved of wrongdoing. Naysayers would still believe the initial reports and weave conspiracy theories on why Aryan Khan was given a clean chit. But no media channel that had fuelled the frenzy has so far issued any apology worth its name.

But Aryan is no exception. Numerous persons face this ignominy. If Shah Rukh Khan, with every resource in the world at his command, cannot fight this monster of wrongful and inaccurate reporting and premature arrests, imagine what recourse an ordinary person has. Every person values their image and reputation; scars and stigma last a lifetime. The errant media usually gets away with an easy excuse of “we were merely reporting what was happening”.

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When Individuals Have to Fight Organisations

‘Diva Cops’ and ‘Diva Media’ need to be held accountable equally. Neither is a picture of divinity or infallibility.

There are no quick remedies.

Restraint and editorial diligence is an option for the media. On the other hand, for law enforcement agencies, periodic updates and briefs made officially available are a time-tested strategy.

Media houses wield disproportionately huge clout and are organisations, thus disadvantaging any individual who may wish to confront them through tedious court proceedings. Individuals-versus-organisations is a lopsided fight, and more measures need to be formulated so that the individual gets respite and organisations are deterred and held accountable before it’s too late.

(The author is an IPS Officer currently posted as DG Prisons, Homeguards and Civil Defence in Nagaland. He tweets @rupin1992. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Aryan Khan   Gyanvapi Mosque 

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