"The IB uses reporters to plant stories"

IN Media Freedom | 14/07/2005
Ifthikar Geelani was falsely accused of espionage and jailed. What followed was a media-led witch hunt and a Kafkaesque trial, as he reveals in this interview with N P Chekkutty.

Ifthikar Geelani¿s book, My Days in Prison, released in Delhi earlier this year, has entered its third print. It is widely described as a book which destroys the media¿s comfortable complacency about the values of our democratic political system. Geelani, a young journalist working as the New Delhi bureau chief of Kashmir Times, a highly respected newspaper from Srinagar, was arrested by the Delhi police on charges of spying for the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency. Geelani was kept in jail for seven months without bail, and the only proof produced against him was a copy of an old academic document about the presence of Indian troops in the Valley, prepared by an Islamabad think tank, which was found on the journalist¿s home computer. He was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act 1923, a much misused piece of legislation. Geelani¿s arrest evoked serious protests and the National Democratic Alliance Government led by A B Vajpayee had to finally release the journalist after unconditionally withdrawing the case it had filed against him in the metropolitan magistrate¿s court in Delhi, when it failed to muster any evidence against him.

His arrest on a hot summer day in June 2002 and the eventual release on a cold winter evening in January 2003 and the chilling experiences he had to face in the police lock-up, the court-rooms and in Tihar Jail are described in the book which has already been translated into Malayalam. A Hindi translation is now in the pipeline.

Geelani was in Kerala recently for the release of the Malayalam translation of the book, and he spoke at length on the book, the case and the role the media played in the entire episode.

Tell me about your background. How did you happen to come to journalism?

I was born in Sopore in the Kashmir valley and came to Delhi after graduation from the Kashmir University and did my journalism course at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Then I worked for various publications and feature services for some time; I was taken into the staff of The Pioneer when Vinod Mehta was editor there. During my Pioneer days I went to Bangalore for the SAARC meet where I met the editor of the Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, and I worked as their correspondent in New Delhi. In between, I worked with Indian Express in Chandigarh and later came back to Delhi and joined Kashmir Times where I work now.

You have been based in Delhi as a journalist for over a decade and you are known in the media circles there. But then what actually led to your arrest and incarceration?

I think a number of factors contributed to my arrest and harassment. First, I was a Kashmiri and I happened to be the son-in-law of Syed Ali Shah Geelani who is a senior leader of the Hurriyat Conference. They decided that targeting me would put pressure on Geelani and they knew this to be a surefire method as they had successfully tested it in the case of some other leaders there.  The second factor was that my newspaper, Kashmir Times, was not in the good books of the establishment and our editor Mr. Ved Bhasin had to face threats from the Intelligence Bureau for his bold stand. In fact, our paper was responsible for the media campaign that resulted in the dismissal of the Farooq Abdullah Government in 1983. The IB had reasons to feel unhappy with us because we had carried a number of stories that exposed their wrongdoings. Some of these stories had created serious problems for them. I think all these things made me the target of their schemes.

Did the Geelani connection put you under any pressure in your professional duties as a journalist in Delhi?

Never.  In fact, not even my close friends knew that I was his son-in-law until I was arrested. I keep my family out of my job. I am a professional and I insist on objectivity in my reports. Perhaps that is why the entire national media stood by me in the days of my difficulties.

How do you look at the media coverage of your arrest, because you say in your book that most of the reports in the initial days were biased against you?

That is true. The media had been carried away by the false inputs provided by the Intelligence Bureau people and there were many factually incorrect reports against me. For example, on the day of my arrest I saw a television channel report - live form the gate of my flat - that I had fled from the scene and that the authorities had seized a large amount of money and incriminating documents from there. The fact is they could find only Rs. 3450 in my house and some jewellery owned by my wife. But I had no way to counter this as I was under arrest. Later on, when I was produced in the court, the crime reporter of a national daily reported that I had confessed that I was an ISI agent. It was a completely false report, a plant by the IB meant to influence the court so that I would never get bail. There were so many such reports, and since I was in jail I had no opportunity to put the record straight and my family had to suffer great humiliations because of the false and biased reports put out against me in those days.

So you think there is a need for the media to rethink its strategies on reporting such matters?

There is. It is very clear that reporters of even the most reputable publications are being used by the police and the IB to plant reports against their victims. And what can the victim do? He has no voice because he is either in the lock-up or in jail and his version never gets published. Such reports do influence the public perception. I have seen many people in the jail whose lives have been affected by irresponsible media reports. But this is a general problem and the media will have to collectively address such matters.

After your release, did you ever meet any of those reporters who put out such wrong reports against you when you were arrested?

I did not meet any. But I know that in some cases the reporters were misled by the authorities and when they realized how mistaken they were, they had made amends and some of them had even taken a keen interest in my defense. It was my friends like Asha Khosa of Indian Express and Anouhita Majumdar who arranged a lawyer for me, and journalists like S K Pandey of the Delhi Union of Journalists who took up my case. Finally, it was their collective effort that forced the government to drop the charges against me.

How was the response from your newspaper during the days of your arrest and jail life?

My paper stood by me in those difficult days. In fact, the management sent two senior editors to Delhi to fight my case and they did everything possible for my defense. They ran a campaign in the paper, paid all the expenses for fighting my case and they also sent the monthly salary to my wife who was facing a kind of social boycott in the initial days of my arrest, because no one in our colony dared even to talk to her. But this changed eventually when the media realized that I was innocent and changed their attitude to me.

How did your family cope with the difficult situation?

Those were very difficult days for us, especially my wife. Her father was also under arrest; he was arrested from Ranchi on the same day and her two brothers were hiding as they were afraid they too could be taken into custody. She had to face the situation alone. Except for my friends from the media, there was no one to turn to for help.

Now that you are free, do you consider going to court for compensation?

After my bitter experiences in the court, I think it would be of no use going to them for justice. When it was proved that the police had forged a document to get me arrested, the court did not take cognizance of the matter and take action against them. In fact, I was terribly dejected by the way the court treated me in the case knowing fully well that I was a journalist and the document they said violated the Official Secrets Act was simply a printed one freely available on the internet. If my friends had failed to produce a copy of the document and prove the charges were false, I would have been in jail for 14 years. So I don¿t know what I could expect with that kind of judges. Perhaps if they would review similar cases still pending in courts under this obsolete legislation called Official Secrets Act, I think that would be a better compensation for me than any monetary gains.

 

Contact: chekkutty@gmail.com

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