On August 31, 2012,
the Deccan Herald carried this story on its front page:
“The Central Crime Branch (CCB) of the City police on Wednesday cracked down on alleged terror modules in the State, arresting 11 people including six from Bangalore and five from Hubli. The 11 men were held for their alleged links with banned terror organisations, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), from across the border. L. R. Pachau, Director General & Inspector General of Police, told reporters here on Thursday evening that the CCB was working on a crucial bit of information regarding the terror modules for the past couple of months and had cracked down in the nick of time to avert a major incident…”
The police also claimed that their handlers were in Saudi Arabia:
“On the orders of their handlers, the two terror modules here had plotted to assassinate a member of Parliament from the state. Also some of the high profile journalists and a media baron were on their hit list,” a senior police official told Deccan Herald…
They were identified as “Shoaib Ahmed Mirza alias Chotu, 25; Abdullah alias Abdul Hakim Jamadar, 25; Ijaz Mohammed Mirza [sic], 25, who worked for DRDO; Mohammed Yousuf Nalaband, 28; Riyaz Ahmed Byahatti, 28 and Mutti-ur-Rehman Siddiqui [sic], 26, a reporter working for this newspaper (emphasis added)”.
first came to Bangalore when he was 23. Like many youngsters of his generation,
he thought he would become an engineer. Born in Hubli in north Karnataka,
Siddiqui’s father had a business selling unani medicines. Siddiqui recalls that
when he was in school, his father wanted to see him as an engineer, and he was
himself by no means averse to the idea.
“I liked the idea myself, but in PUC (equivalent to Plus 2), I found myself in trouble with mathematics,” he says. “So I dropped the idea of engineering. But I pick up languages easily. In fact I’m fluent in English, Kannada, and Urdu and speak and write Hindi, Persian, and Arabic.” That offered a way forward.
While doing his BA in history and political science from Karnataka Dharwad College, Siddiqui started working part time as a reporter for Rashtriya Sahara, an Urdu publication. “Then, in 2008, I came to Bangalore, where I worked as a sub-editor in their office. After work, I took media classes at a private college.” The hard work began to pay off. He was hired by a local news agency as a reporter.
“In 2009, a friend told me that Deccan Herald was hiring reporters in Hubli. My father had passed away and I wanted to return to Hubli.” But Deccan Herald hired him as a reporter on condition that he would stay in Bangalore.
“That was a big break,” Siddiqui reminisces. “The chance to report for a major English daily, the decision to stay on in Bangalore, was life-changing for me.” In retrospect it was a mixed blessing.
At Deccan Herald, Siddiqui joined the crime beat. While he had learnt the ropes of reporting by now, covering the daily grind of murders, extortions, rapes and kidnappings that make up the statistical graph of any metropolis’ crime gave him a more realistic view of news and the profession of telling it.
He found that contrary to the romanticised view from the movies, the crime reporter did not routinely meet crime bosses or talk to criminals in shady bars under dim lights. They rarely, if ever, conducted an independent investigation into major criminal operations. However, the crime reporter talked to a lot of policemen. They were usually the reporter’s only source of information.
Siddiqui filed at least five stories a day. If the crimes were particularly important, he would visit the scene of the crime with a photographer. He would meet the police officers at their offices, where they told him some of what was going on. But often, he could neither name the officers as his source, nor could he cross-check or verify everything he was told, a typical dilemma for a crime reporter. Often, he did not meet his sources either. There were too many crimes in a day and the police department did not have official spokespersons for routine briefings.
So Siddiqui and other reporters like him across the city sat at their desks, glued to the telephone, eyes often scanning television channels for news about crimes in the city. After a year, he moved to the education beat. He had more time now that the number of stories to be filed decreased, but much else remained the same.
“I didn’t really have
the time to dig deeper, to do stories that went beyond the run of the mill. By
this time I felt I wasn’t doing all that I should. I was looking for a big
story, a story that would have a big impact.”
On August 29, he was assigned to cover the meeting of Bangalore University’s Academic Council. It was to begin at 11 a.m. and go on till the afternoon. Siddiqui says he set the alarm to wake up early in the morning. But it was a different sort of alarm that woke him up.
“I remember a lot of noise. I was woken up roughly by several men who just barged into my bedroom. The policemen were wearing mufti but I recognised some of them from my time as a crime reporter. They did not identify themselves as policemen and did not state clearly what they were arresting us for, but just started collaring and abusing my flatmates,” he recalls.
Within five minutes they were dragged out of the house and pushed inside two silver grey Innova vans. Siddiqui argued with the hefty police constable next to him as they drove off.
“They were swearing at us in the foulest language. They slapped one of my flatmates. I can’t describe the humiliation I felt then. And we were completely helpless. I tried reasoning with the constable sitting beside me, but it was no use. After some time I decided to keep quiet,” he says.
It was sometime after 9 a.m.
Siddiqui and his three flatmates, Ijaz Ahmed Mirza (25), Mohammad Nalband (25), and Riyaz Ahmed Byahatti (27) were driven to Palace Grounds. Mirza was a junior research fellow in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Nalband worked as a sales executive, and Byahatti was a salesman in a private company They were kept there for one hour and given breakfast.
The Times of India lead on Page 1 described how the police claimed the arrests were executed. On Page 5, devoted exclusively to covering the alleged terror bust, there was more sensational material.
“A Qualis had already brought two more people I knew, Shoaib Mirza and Abdul Hakeem Jamadar,” Siddiqui says. “A separate police team nabbed them from a house in Marappa Gardens, in J.C. Nagar.” Shoaib is Ijaz Mirza’s brother and was an MCA student at the time. According to Siddiqui, another young man named Mohammad Akram was also there. The police claim that Akram was arrested the next day in the evening, as he was fleeing from the Kempegowda bus stand, and that he had a pistol with him. Most media organisations reported this as a fact.
“My phone had kept ringing. The last call came at around 11 a.m. It could have been from the office or the Bangalore University PRO, but I couldn't answer them,” Siddiqui says.
A while later, all six were taken to an interrogation centre in the city.
“As a crime reporter, I knew the Bangalore police had an interrogation centre, but I’d never been inside,” he says. “Once there, they put us three to a cell. Nalband and Riyaz were in mine.”
The interrogation centre is a huge complex with several kinds of rooms for questioning and interrogation, labelled differently in police terminology. Siddiqui says he was taken alone to one of the rooms, where officers of the Bangalore Central Crime Branch (CCB)
Most of the media in Bangalore did not get wind of the story till noon the
next day, when the police held a press conference to announce the arrests.
Police chief L.R. Pachau announced that 11 Muslim youths had been arrested in
Bangalore and Hubli in simultaneous raids by the Bangalore CCB. He said two
“terror modules” of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami
(HuJI) were acting in concert to assassinate right-wing journalists, politicians
and policemen in the state. The police, who had kept an eye on the two groups
for months, moved in the nick of time to avert a major disaster.
He said two of the suspects, Shoaib Mirza and Abdul Hakeem Jamadar, were the first to be picked up. They were arrested when they were on their way to assassinate Pratap Simha, a columnist for Kannada Prabha. They claimed to have recovered a pistol, purportedly the assassins’ tool.
While the story broke on news channels and websites of various newspapers, many Bangaloreans saw it for the first time when they picked up their newspaper, outside their doorstep or slipped under their doors. The news was the kind that was bound to upset their quiet breakfast.
The Times of India lead on Page 1 described how the police claimed the arrests were executed. On Page 5, devoted exclusively to covering the alleged terror bust, there was more sensational material. A headline in bold ran the width of the page: “Spectre of fear returns to haunt us”. A sub-head above proclaimed: “Many of Those Nabbed Are Educated Men With Good Jobs. Police Now Have to Deal With This New Face of Terror”.
One of the stories, in what is described as a “package” in newspaper parlance, was titled “Scribe was mastermind”. On the website the story appears with the headline: “Bob Biswas as scribe? Siddiqui’s the demure killer mastermind”.
“Police sources claimed Muthi-ur-Rahman Siddiqui was the mastermind who identified high-profile personalities for assassination by his associates. However, people who’ve known him said Siddiqui is a soft-spoken person serious about journalism and helpful to colleagues. They said he never wore his extremist beliefs, if any, on his sleeve. Sources added the right-wing leanings of a few journalists and MPs and MLAs made them targets.
“ ‘Siddiqui collected details of persons they decided to kill. His journalistic contacts helped him learn more about the targets and their movements and report to his bosses in Dubai,’ sources said …”
Citing intelligence sources, a Chennai report said Siddiqui told investigators about his links with certain individuals in Ambur, Vellore and Vanyimabadi in Tamil Nadu. They said he frequently visited some organisations based there.”
Deccan Herald, Siddiqui’s employer, also had a terror package on Page 5. Unlike some of its competitors, who were dependent on their Bangalore reporting team, Herald, with its strong bureaus in most parts of Karnataka, carried many stories from Hubli. One story was about how two of the suspects lived close to then chief minister Jagadish Shettar’s house. A second was titled “Suspects operated out of a small house”.
The story said: “A small house at Sonia Gandhi Nagar in Bidnal on the outskirts of Hubli was a den of extremists, neighbours claimed. The two suspects … were allegedly given instructions by journalist Muthi-Ur-Rahman Siddiqui [sic] to spread jihad in the region, the neighbours said. Siddiqui, it is said, was the secretary of the Students’ Islamic Organisation four years ago. Subsequently, he shifted to Bangalore where he allegedly came in contact with the banned Bangladesh-based HUJI and recruited operatives for the terrorist outfit. Sources said Siddiqui allegedly met other terror suspects in the City [sic] regularly and conspired to kill political leaders.”
The story, which did not have a byline, also mentioned that the group headed by Siddiqui was responsible for spreading the hate SMSes that had allegedly caused people from the North-East to flee the state in a mass exodus last year.
In the first week of September, then Bangalore city police commissioner Jyoti Prakash Mirji called a press conference where he cautioned the media against carrying speculative stories based on unnamed sources within the police department who were not part of the investigation.
Such stories might end up creating communal tension, he said.
The press conference was called after Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde reprimanded the state police for revealing sensitive information to the media while the investigation was in a nascent state.
But if the media space was being swamped by unverifiable conspiracy theories and alarmist stories of more terror modules operating within the state, both the Centre and the state governments were feeding that line.
Barely 36 hours after the arrests, the Bangalore police announced not only that they had busted an 11-member gang planning assassinations, but had enough evidence against each and had established that they belonged to the Laskhar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami , with handlers in Saudi Arabia. After these revelations, the media did not ask the obvious questions.
Police claimed that the men arrested had confessed to their involvement. But if they were trained hardcore terrorists, why had they spilled the beans so fast? Were the suspects tortured to extract speedy confessions? If not, what induced them to co-operate? Confessions made before police officers are not evidence, according to Indian law. Would these men endorse their confessions before a magistrate, so that the statements might have legal value?
In the coming weeks, the police arrested four more men from Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Nanded in Maharashtra. Within days, the electronic and print media had whipped up a frenzy about the radicalisation of educated young Muslims. They fed their audiences with images of cloaked and hidden terrorists operating in their midst as engineers, journalists, doctors, and other professions.
Many local TV channels declared the arrested men to be terrorists. Newspapers headlines screamed their guilt in bold type. Substantial segments of the reportage in English newspapers analysed for this story (The Times of India, Deccan Herald, DNA, and Deccan Chronicle), violated the basic protocols of journalism.
The Times of India, DNA, and Deccan Chronicle repeatedly ran stories about the “failed terror plot”, “the busted terror module”, or “arrested extremists”, without even prefixing these terms with the customary “alleged”. Most stories were attributed to anonymous sources within the police, without any mention of whether they had access to the investigation.
Many stories reproduced police versions of the arrests, including timing and place, as fact. Some went so far as to narrate the events of the arrest or particular details of the alleged terror plots without attributing them to any source. In none of the stories was there an attempt to confirm the information with authorised spokespersons of the Bangalore police. The Hindu covered the story in a more balanced way and generally avoided more sensational stories, but also carried stories based on anonymous sources that we now know were factually incorrect.
For example, on September 3, 2012, DNA in its Bangalore edition ran a flyer with the headline “Armed and dangerous; another terror plotter in police net”. The text was accompanied by an illustration of a turbaned figure clad in black, face hooded, and holding a semi-automatic rifle.
The reporter writes: “Continuing their investigations into the terror module that was busted in the state, sleuths from the Central Crime Branch on Sunday nabbed a 22-year-old youth allegedly tasked to kill a Hubli-based politician. Mohammed Akram [sic] alias Khalid alias Imran Khan, a native of Nanded, Maharashtra, was picked up from Majestic area in the city while trying to flee the city. Police have recovered a 7.65 mm pistol along with 16 live cartridges from him.”
The rest of the story is a narration of the details of the month-long terror plot, most of it in third person, as if the reporter had direct knowledge of the events.
Another story, “Bangalore terror kingpin Zakeer still at large”, which quoted the investigating officer, contained language identical to the FIR filed by the police, but it was presented as the reporter’s own version.
Once the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which took over the investigation, filed the chargesheet before a sessions court, it became obvious that much of the media reporting was unsubstantiated or simply untrue. The chargesheet mentions no plans to target the Kaiga Nuclear Plant, the Sea Bird Naval Base in Karwar, and other defence establishments as media reports had claimed. NIA investigations did not turn up any of the countless sleeper cells that Zakir alias Ustad, the absconding so-called mastermind, was allegedly operating across the country. In February this year, the NIA dropped all charges against Muthi-ur-Rahman Siddiqui, Ijaz Ahmed Mirza, Mohammad Yusuf Nalband, and Syed Tanzeem.
Journalists and media analysts consulted for this story were unanimous in their opinion that The Times of India, Bangalore’s largest selling English newspaper, carried the most egregious stories. It was the first to report that Siddiqui was the mastermind of the alleged plot.
“Times set the ball rolling. They were the first and it was picked up by all newspapers and TV channels,” says Shiv Sunder, political analyst and journalist working for Kannada weekly Lankesh Patrike. The Times of India reported that the suspects were planning to plant bombs at the Ganesh festival in Hubli and create panic among the lakhs of devotees at the festival.
A second story said an online al-Qaeda magazine on jihad—called Inspire—inspired six of the accused. The story said copies of the magazine were downloaded onto a pen drive recovered from their possession.
The story said: “ ‘The suspects, when confronted with those web files, admitted to the interrogators that they found the contents inspiring and wanted to do something big,’ a source privy to the details of interrogation said. Shocked at the level of indoctrination among educated youth, the Centre is planning to discuss the matter.”
Some stories bordered on the absurd. A report titled “Terror suspects give cops a tough time” claimed the police were having a tough time because the arrested youngsters knew their constitutional rights.
“The sources said the police task is complicated by the fact that most of the accused are highly educated and know the law like the back of their hand. ‘When we went to arrest the suspects from their J.C. Nagar hideout, the accused asked us under what law were they being arrested. They demanded that we display the arrest warrants,’ ” says the report.
Another story has the police bemoaning the fact that suspects had been “parroting” that they were members of the LeT and HuJJi, only in order to cover their connections with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The Times carried more than one story and graphic listing the previous instances of Islamic terror in the state. A story that starts off with “Hubli and terror go hand in hand,” mentioned a 2008 bomb blast in the Hubli court in the context of Islamic terror. Police after initially blaming the blast on Indian Mujahideen, had arrested the member of a Hindutva group for the crime.
As the interrogation went on, I realised we had no chance,” Siddiqui recalls.
“All they wanted was us to confess to this plot. I kept telling them that we
are innocent and asking them what evidence they have, but it was no use. I
remember at one point, begging the investigating officer, ‘Sir, please don’t
ruin my life!’ I was given access to newspapers in police custody and I read
the news stories that said I was the mastermind.
“Whatever they might have told the media, they did not take that line during interrogation. All the questions they asked, they just wanted me to confess I was part of the alleged plot. This went on day after day for one month. The mental pressure was unbearable. But I refused to admit to the fake charges.
“Finally, they asked me to sign a statement, based on what I had said. I read through it and pointed out that there were some mistakes. But they said it was alright and not to worry. After I signed, the interrogations stopped. After 30 days, the judge sent us to judicial custody and we were transferred to the central prison,” he says.
On the day Siddiqui was brought to the interrogation centre, he met those arrested from Hubli: Imran Bahadur, Dr Jaffer Sholapur, Mohammed Lashkar, and Waheed Hussain. One of the men was known to him through a mutual friend. Some were friends of Shoaib Mirza.
Siddiqui claims all the men were innocent and had been framed, just like his flatmates and other two friends arrested from Bangalore. He says during interrogation, the others were subjected to severe torture.
“I could hear their screams. Many were stripped and electric shocks applied to their private parts. One was hung upside down and beaten. Petrol was poured over his genitals. Police broke the finger of a boy arrested from Hyderabad. They related their torture to me when we got a chance to talk. They were all made to sign concocted confessions. Many were not even allowed to read the confessions,” he said.
In spite of the fact that one of those arrested was a journalist, none of the city's larger media organisations independently investigated police claims or tried to cross-check with independent sources.
Though one of those arrested was a journalist, none of the city’s larger media organisations independently investigated police claims or tried to cross-check with independent sources.
According to the NIA chargesheet, the two alleged terror modules were planning to assassinate 12 prominent people in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Hubli. This includes an MP and MLC of the ruling party in Karnataka, three senior police officials from Bangalore including the joint commissioner of police who had overall charge of the investigations, and three city councillors. The tools of the assassination consisted of exactly two pistols allegedly recovered by the police. The chargesheet also says that the alleged LeT/HuJI terrorists, who were being controlled by an international terror network based in Saudi Arabia, planned to loot jewellery stores in Hubli to finance their operations. The NIA was unable to trace Zakeer alias Ustaad the mastermind of the plot. Most significantly, while the NIA claims that the accused confessed to all details of the plot including the names of their handlers and the name of ISI officials who allegedly met two of them in Karachi, the local man who supplied the pistols to them under Ustaad’s instructions remains unnamed and has not been traced.
The police case revolved around the arrest of Shoaib Mirza and Abdul Hakeem Jamadar. According to the FIR, they were on their way to assassinate Pratap Simha, a columnist for Kannada Prabha. Having carried out surveillance of Pratap Simha, the duo proceeded to the house of Simha’s friend in Basaveshwara Nagar, which the columnist visited frequently. Neither the FIR filed by the Bangalore CCB nor the chargesheet filed by the NIA give any indication of how the two alleged assassins knew Simha would be visiting his friend on that particular day and time.
According to the chargesheet and FIR, the police team headed by ACP Jithendranath arrested Shoaib Mirza and Jamadar at 12.30 p.m. The two confessed to being terrorists and on interrogation revealed the location of the house in JC Nagar where their alleged co-conspirators lived. The CCB team arrested the four others from their J.C. Nagar flat at 3.30 p.m.
The police version is significantly at variance with that of Siddiqui and his flatmates on two major points. First, Siddiqui says Shoaib Mirza and Jamadar were arrested not from Basaveshwar Nagar but from the house they shared at Marapa Gardens. Second, Siddiqui and his flatmates were arrested at 9 a.m.
After the plainclothes
police drove off with the four youngsters from J.C. Nagar, neighbours
approached the police station and filed a missing person complaint. The
complaint, signed by six residents, says men in a silver Innova picked up the
boys between 8.30 a.m. and 9 a.m. None of the newspapers or news channels
reported on this. The testimony of the neighbours throws doubt on the police
narrative. The entire case hinges on the arrest of Shoaib and Jamadar from near
Pratap Simha’s friend’s house during their alleged assassination attempt.
Some newspapers gained access to copies of the FIR within a few days. Deccan Herald carried a story that reported its contents accurately. But no newspaper questioned the discrepancies in the FIRs or the confessional statements of the two prime accused.
In this particular case, there was no pressure from editorial. The (crime) reporters who covered the case wanted to get exclusive and sensational stories.
Police said that when the alleged assassins were spotted by the CCB team, they tried to flee. Shoaib Mirza, armed with a 7.65 mm Italian-made Beretta with which he intended to kill Pratap Simha, pulled it out to shoot. However, according to the FIR, police jumped on to the alleged Pakistani trained terrorist and disarmed him manually without a single shot being fired.
Within three hours, the two had confessed to plans to kill over a dozen prominent journalists, policemen and politicians, revealed that they were members of LeT and HuJi (used inter-changeably throughout the case) and revealed the locations of their comrades in Bangalore and Hubli.
The FIR also claims Shoaib and Jamadar were carrying all kinds of incriminating material on their person during their alleged hit mission. This included a photograph of Pratap Simha standing alongside Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. The three main planks of the police case at the preliminary stage of investigation were the claim that they had arrested two of the accused during a terror act and recovered two pistols, the confessions of Shoaib Mirza and Jamadar, and seized jihadi material. According to the FIR, the jihadi material, for the possession of which the accused were charged under IPC sections 153(a) and (b), were “ materials like Video [sic] clippings of RSS march past, Mission Kashmir, ridiculing the concept of Jihad and Mujahiddin and other provocative and preaching materials to indoctrinate the members into Jihad”.
The NIA filed the chargesheet in March 2013. By then Siddiqui had spent six months in jail, half in police custody. After he was released, he held a press conference where he said the entire case had been fabricated by police and that the media had showed utter lack of sensitivity in reporting the issue.
Some weeklies and alternative news websites carried lengthy interviews with Siddiqui, where he accused police of torturing the accused to extract false confessions. In spite of the gravity of the accusations, none of the larger news organisations, including Deccan Herald, carried a full interview with him. While many newspapers commented that the NIA case was weak, there was no effort to conduct an independent investigation into the evidence. And stories endorsing the police version continued to appear.
On May 17, Deccan Chronicle carried a story about the NIA seeking the help of the US authorities. It pointed out that going by the charge-sheet, the NIA had been able to gather only limited evidence. The next day another story by the same reporter claimed NIA investigations had “revealed” that the accused had links with LeT and HuJI militants responsible for bomb blasts across the country. The story did not mention what had changed since the last day.
Reporters from many publications named in this story talked about why their newspapers reported the way they did. They attributed it to a combination of factors. Some said communalism and cultural stereotypes about Muslims played a definite part in the way the arrested men were branded terrorists.
“People kept saying how he was religiously orthodox and many journalists judged him guilty on that basis. If one is a Muslim, has a beard, dresses in a particular ways and has strong religious views, he is a potential extremist. But if the person in question is, say, a Brahmin, wears a tilak, does pooja regularly and even holds a particular shade of political opinion, no such perception arises,” says a reporter in Deccan Herald, who did not want to be identified. Another major reason identified by journalists who spoke to Fountain Ink was the pressure of the news cycle and the nature of crime reporting.
All the reporters who gave their inputs for this story said that since the main and often only source of information is the police, reporters become overly dependent on the police and are reluctant to question them for fear of antagonising their sources. This, they said, led to rumours and speculation being carried without any cross-checking.
In the first 48 hours, police leaks and rumour-mongering that leveraged cultural stereotypes came together to spread fears that more Muslim journalists would be arrested. English and Kannada dailies carried stories to that effect, even claiming that the media had been penetrated by terrorist sleeper cells.
“I was called by one of our editors in the early morning and told that my friend, a reporter for another publication, had been arrested. Though the information was false there was speculation through the day in the newsroom that his arrest was imminent. I was very worried about his safety as he was investigating the alleged terror plot.” says a reporter working in a prominent English daily, who wished to remain unnamed.
On August 30, a Kannada news channel mistakenly flashed the news that the correspondent of a national magazine had been arrested as part of the investigation. The news was taken off the air within half-an hour, but the channel offered no retraction. It is difficult to be certain how the atmosphere of anxiety affected reportage and whether such stories were deliberately planted by police as a scare tactic to cow the media.
A senior crime reporter working for The Hindu, who wished not to be named due to internal rules regarding talking to other publications, said: “I was working for another publication at that time. The day after the arrest two ACP level officers rang my office to find out if I had been arrested. I was out at that time, but was told by my office when I got back. Two days later some of my police sources rang me again. I asked if they had a special reason. They said they were checking because they had heard that I was to be arrested. When you’re working as a journalist, especially as a crime reporter, this kind of unsubstantiated rumours creates a difficult atmosphere.”
A reporter from The Times of India, who talked about the Times’ coverage of the alleged conspiracy, said the problem lay with culture of crime reporting in Bangalore. The reporter said: “Journalists usually just depend on press notes issued by police and reproduce them in their stories. There is no idea of questioning the police. Most reporters are good friends with top cops and would not really go against the police narrative. With The Times of India’s coverage, the headlines and the graphics made things much worse, even when the stories did not say much.
“The reporter who filed the stories about Siddiqui carried a lot of planted stories. After Siddiqui’s release, he said in private that the cops had taken him for a ride. But ultimately, a newspaper has no choice but to trust its reporters. It is his or her responsibility to judge the truth of what his sources tell him or her and verify it through other sources.”
The journalist, however, said that after the initial week, Times was more objective in its coverage. “The editor said we had made a mistake with the coverage. We were more careful after that. I think after Siddiqui’s release there have been some changes in the way crime is reported in Bangalore. Reporters are asking more questions, read FIR copies, and so on.
“I think it’s unfair to criticise the media for not investigating the case. We cannot prove that suspects in a case are innocent, even if we suspected it. There is the question of access. We have no access to the suspects once they are arrested. Hence we cannot investigate and find out the truth,” the journalist said. When reached, The Times of India’s Bangalore editor, Vinay Kamat, said he did not want to comment on the issue.
A former crime reporter with DNA, who was working for it then, said shoddy standards and a need to break sensational stories led reporters to write factually inaccurate stories. “In Bangalore, crime reporters function more like stenographers. They tend to just reproduce what the police tell them. In this particular case, there was no pressure from the editorial to produce stories. The reporters who covered the case wanted to get exclusive and sensational stories. It was reporters who were competing to put out breaking stories.
“The sources relied upon were often not part of the investigation. What they said was not cross-checked. The editorial should also have laid down a line about unverified stories. I personally took one of the reporters to meet some of the families of the suspects and human rights organisations dealing with the case, so that he wouldn’t take only one side. But he did not write against the police version. He was probably afraid of upsetting his sources.” Ravi Joshi, DNA’s Bangalore editor then, was unavailable for comment.
A Deccan Chronicle reporter described what happened in the newsroom after the police announced the arrests. “Many were willing to believe Siddiqui, with whom all the reporters were acquainted, was guilty. There were many rumours going around that were just products of communal or cultural bias. I asked many of my colleagues how they knew he was involved. They said he had always been religiously orthodox, that his colleagues in Deccan Herald had said they had seen him reading Urdu literature on his computer; that it could have been jihadi literature, etc.
“A senior reporter said Siddiqui was small fry and that the real big fish was the Bangalore correspondent of another news organisation, whom we knew in common. All this naturally affected reportage. Once the TV channels started up, there was great pressure on crime reporters to come up with new or exclusive stories. The police story was believed without question. Empty speculation and religious stereotypes fed into the stories. The planted or speculative stories by reporters reinforced these biases, forming a vicious cycle.” Neena Gopal, Bangalore editor of Deccan Chronicle did not reply to an e-mail asking about the paper’s coverage of the case.
Two Deccan Herald reporters who spoke on condition of anonymity said some of Siddiqui’s colleagues provided damaging information about him. “After it was learnt that a Deccan Herald journalist was arrested, reporters from other papers started calling people they knew in the office. Some of them didn’t know Siddiqui closely. They had their own biases and this resulted in a lot of damaging rumours about Siddiqui,” one of the reporters said.
According to these journalists, the management realised that a mistake had been made in allowing unverified stories about the terror plot and Siddiqui’s alleged role to be carried in the first two days. One of the reporters said the story from Hubli originated with the Hubli bureau of Praja Vani, a sister publication of the same group. But other journalists working for Deccan Herald said the story was filed from the paper’s bureau in Hubli.
“Deccan Herald got a lot of criticism for that story. A meeting was held where the editor discussed the story and a course correction was made. After that we did not carry any stories that seemed planted by police, though other media houses, especially Times, continued to,” he said. As long as news organisations expected reporters to produce a certain number of stories of a certain kind, misreporting would continue, he added.
“For a Tier III city reporter, a terror story is a big chance for a byline. In this case, two alleged terror suspects were living almost next to the chief minister’s house. It is a huge opportunity for him. This is what happened with the Hubli story and also with a lot of Kananda newsppaers.
“As for Bangalore, a crime reporter in a big city is expected to write half-a-dozen stories a day. You can’t be everywhere at once and can’t check everything. You often pick stuff off TV. After the terror story broke, every news channel was playing it up throughout the day, so there was tremendous pressure on the reporter to get different stories. No reporter can go the editor the next day and file a 400-word story relying only on official statements.”
Both journalists said Deccan Herald reporters were among of the first to get to Siddiqui’s house. They said reporters believed from the first that Siddiqui was innocent and had wanted to write stories from that angle. “But Deccan Herald in its wisdom decided to remain neutral. The paper did not take planted or speculative stories. Neither did we do investigative stories that tried to upset the police case.”
Both these journalists said that though initially they were against the policy, they now feel that it was probably the right course. “If we had tried to defend him, we would merely have damaged our credibility.”
Asked why no stories were written on the discrepancies in the FIR one of them said “One of the reporters did write such a story. But the editorial turned it down. The reason given was that it was not solid enough.”
K. Subramanya, associate editor of Deccan Herald, said in a conversation with Fountain Ink that his newspaper had done the best in a very difficult situation. “We were in a very delicate position. One of my colleagues had been arrested on terror charges. Of course, we believed he was innocent. Forget everything else, the first question before us was whether to report or not to report. We decided we had to report because we had that obligation to our reader.
“Once we decided that we would report, what could we report? All of us believed he was innocent but we could not convert our personal beliefs into news. Am I an investigator? We had no access to the suspects after they were arrested. We could only report the version of one side, the police. The investigating officers would not come on record and so we had to get information off the record. There was no way to verify it.”
Subramanya denied that there was a course-change after the first two days or that the management or editorial felt the paper had blundered in carrying the Hubli story. He also said there was no pressure on him from the management or police to toe a particular line.
“You can say only with the advantage of hindsight that this or that story should not have been carried. You can do that only in academics, not when a news cycle is running. The name of the neighbours in the Hubli story was not taken because a journalist has to protect confidential sources. But as the editor I know who they are. Otherwise we would not have carried it.
“There was tremendous pressure to sack Siddiqui. But we did not do that. He was only suspended and we re-instated him immediately after his release. He will also be paid full salary for the months in jail. One of the other accused arrested was a DRDO engineer (Ijaz Ahmed Mirza). DRDO fired him immediately. It is a central government agency. The central government has its own intelligence gathering mechanism. If they believed these charges, how can we be expected to establish innocence?”
On May 20, 2013,
Siddiqui rejoined Deccan Herald. After his release he had taken a
sabbatical of two months to spend time with his family in Hubli. He was offered
his former position in the reporting team but Siddiqui said he wanted to work
on the city desk. Asked why, he says his experience in jail has changed the way
he views journalism. He has become disillusioned with reporting.
“The urge I had to chase after stories and get something new is not there so much,” he says. Besides, he says both the sections of a newspaper are equally important. It is not merely getting the stories that matter. How stories are layered, ordered and presented is also important.
“On desk you have a say in all this. A lot of people on the desk don’t know about reporting. I hope to bring that experience to desk work. Especially in editing crime copy,” he says.
Asked if he is angry at the fraternity for the way they covered the case, he says, “I’m not angry. But I feel saddened, disappointed. My own fraternity was doing this to me. I expected something like this to happen. But I did not expect the media to go over the top like this.
“I think if the media continues to behave in this fashion, its downfall is imminent. People will stop believing it. Everybody makes mistakes. But the moment we realise we have done something wrong, we must own up. We should have the habit of owning up.”