When ‘news’ is 3 months old

BY MUHAMMED SABITH| IN Regional Media | 25/08/2016
The Kerala media reported a May ruling by the Central Information Commission as ‘news’ in August. Why?
MUHAMMED SABITH reports on the odd event

 

The question why almost the entire media in Kerala recently reported a three month old story as ‘new’ is intriguing. The story was the Central Information Commission (CIC) ruling on May 9 on whether the agenda and content of Cabinet meetings can be revealed under RTI.  

It is not clear whether anyone in the Kerala media reported the CIC ruling at the time it was made public; naturally, not every CIC ruling is reported - it depends on the perceived importance of a ruling and on the journalist’s discretion. What is certain, however, is that it was only on August 13/14 that several news channels and newspapers reported the May 9 decision as a ‘fresh development’.

Some journalists say the explanation is that the May 9 order suddenly became hugely relevant and significant in August because the state government has moved the High Court challenging a similar order issued by the State Information Commission (SIC).

This order, dated June 15, asked the current LDF state government to provide details of the Cabinet meetings held under the previous UDF government in its final days to an RTI applicant. But instead of respecting the SIC order and providing the information, the LDF government challenged it in the High Court. On August 10, the court stayed the order. The matter will be be taken up again by the court on September 9.

The fact remains that it was not till August 13/14 that newspapers including some English dailies and Malayalam newspapers reported the May 9 CIC ruling with some, like Chandrika and Thejas, putting it on the front page. While Malayala Manorama carried it inside, Mathrubhumi covered it in its online English version. It was also a big story of the day for other dailies such as Madhyamam and Siraj.

None of these reports, notably, mentioned that the CIC decision had been issued three months ago. Rather, many dailies suggested it was a fresh order. There were other factually incorrect sentences in almost each story. Madhyamam, for example, reported that the CIC’s order “came out at a time when the state government has approached the High Court against releasing the Cabinet decisions and agendas under RTI.”

While Malayala Manorama wrote nothing about when the CIC order was issued, its headline read “Central Information Commission says Cabinet agenda too should be revealed,” suggesting that the CIC ruling was new.

Mathrubhumi, in its English Online, went even further in being creative with the facts, saying that the CIC has asked “the state governments to publicize the decisions and agenda of Cabinet meetings”. The May 9 CIC order asked nothing of the state government. The report also said the directive “comes at a time when a difference of opinion between RTI activists and the Kerala government has been making headlines in the state”. Again, the juxtaposition of the two rulings implies that there is a clear link when in fact the two rulings are separate (although obviously very relevant).   

Another report in English, in the Deccan Chronicle, also called the CIC ruling of May 9 “new” and also said, inaccurately, that the CIC has “asked the Central and state governments to publicize the decisions and agenda of Cabinet meetings”.

Thejas made similar statements and added that the Chief Information Commissioner Radha Krishna Mathur has ordered that “the state governments should reveal the decisions and agendas of the Cabinet meetings.” Siraj, in its story,  called the CIC’s “new” order a setback to the state government’s stand.

While one can appreciate the relevance of the CIC order given the current circumstances in the state, ie the Kerala government refusing to obey the SIC ruling that it should reveal the contents of the last government’s Cabinet meetings during a certain period, even so, it raises concerns over the way certain stories are reported without adequate verification of the details.

‘Journalists can’t double-check every story they get’

One reporter who filed this story, answering The Hoot’s query, admitted he could not independently verify the story, as his was a small organization lacking adequate manpower. He said he went ahead and covered the story after “at least four major (Malayalam) news channels ran the story” and said he relied on television news channels for the details.

He also said that if one reporter or media organisation makes an error, then it is likely that many others will repeat the same mistake because reporters working on a story often depend on fellow reporters working on the same story. This journalist, who works in Thiruvananthapuram, said this is a regular practice, particularly among those working with small media organizations.

Another journalist, working in the Delhi bureau of a Malayalam newspaper, who  filed the story for his newspaper, echoed what the Thiruvananthapuram reporter said. He told The Hoot that he got the story from another reporter, a reply that hardly surprises any journalist who has experience of working with a small regional newspaper at any of its regional bureaus.  Such journalists cooperate closely and the result is that they often do not even bother to verify the information they receive from one another.

My queries on how different media carried factually incorrect stories on the same topic also received some other interesting replies too. One reporter said that he feels he was misled by his source. Many journalists named a particular RTI activist as a major source in the ‘latest CIC ruling’ story. The RTI activist, advocate D. B. Binu, is also the person on whose complaint the Kerala SIC issued its order regarding providing the details of the state Cabinet meetings under an RTI application. And it was to challenge this SIC order that the state government moved the High Court earlier this month.

Binu, responding to The Hoot, said the relevance of the CIC’s May 9 decision, in the present context in the state, was indisputable. “What is important is the relevance of the CIC order, the ‘dictum’, in the present context in the state. The CIC’s stand was similar to that of Kerala SIC that asked the state government to divulge the details of the Cabinet meetings under RTI. Therefore when the state government has moved to the High Court to challenge the SIC order, this CIC dictum also gets important,” he said.

When asked about being named as the source of the story by some reporters and the source of the factual errors and misleading statements, Binu said that he had shared a copy of the CIC order with the media and if they made mistakes, he was not to blame.

One bureau chief who filed the story said that the earlier CIC story assumed importance in August given the fact that the Kerala government had gone to court over the issue but when asked about the date of the CIC order, he had no idea about it.

Dr  Yasin Ashraf, a senior journalist with Madhyamam and a media critic, said journalists should admit their “big mistake”. He said: “If this is true, this is a huge mistake on our part. An unfortunate trend we see today is that reporters hardly crosscheck the information they get from different sources.” Dr Yasin also lamented the practice of print journalists taking up television and online stories without verifying their veracity.

So here we are. Reporters who filed the May 9 development as a ‘news’ story three months later say they  filed it as their source provided it, or as they saw other media carrying the story, or as their fellow journalists passed it on to them. Yet Binu says he didn’t mislead anyone. All explanations as to what really went wrong with almost the entire media in Kerala will be gratefully received.

 

Muhammed Sabith can be reached at sabith.muhemmad@gmail.com.

 

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