The media’s record on SAR Geelani

BY SEVANTI NNAN| IN Archive | 21/03/2016
As the December 13, 2001 Parliament attack accused S AR Geelani is acquitted by the High Court, it is instructive to revisit the reporting on his case,
wrote SEVANTI NINAN in 2003. A Hoot Retrospective

 S A R Geelani  was booked for sedition in February 2016

 

In the Hoot’s 15th anniversary year  we will run selected  articles from its archives, linked to what is making news today.

 

 

The media’s record on SAR Geelani, Nov. 1, 2003

 

At his first press conference after his release, Zakir Hussain College lecturer S A  R Geelani  referred to the role of the media in his case. It had lent itself to carrying propaganda put out by the police, he said. To the extent that journalists take briefings from the police, often unquestioningly, he is right. The record shows that the media  did purvey what it was fed about him. And sometimes it was intimidated by the police into carrying only what they wanted carried. An Aaj Tak reporter on one occasion, admitted as much.

In 2002, in an open letter to the Law Minister of India, Amnesty International expressed its concern over the conduct of the Indian media, and the "absolute inaction by the Government of India to put a halt to it."  It expressed AI’s concern that the media coverage of the arrests and concerning the person of Abdul Rehman Geelani during the pre-trial period has been extremely prejudicial to his case. The media coverage which largely presented Geelani as guilty before the trial had even begun, "must be presumed to impact negatively on Abdul Rehman Geelani`s right to be presumed innocent as required by Article 14(2) of the ICCPR and on the impartiality of the POTA court which is to hear the case from 8 July 2002" the organisation said.

And these are the examples it gave. The Hindustan Times  on December 17, 2001 reported that Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani had bought a house in New Delhi with unaccounted for money, indoctrinated students in terrorism (Hindustan Times, The Hindu, both 17 December 2001) and participated in activities of the now banned Students Islamic Movement of India (Times  of  India, 20 December 2001).  Human rights activists in India, said Amnesty, had pointed out that these allegations were untrue.

What’s more, reports appeared in the media quoting from Geelani`s confessional statement which imply his guilt despite the fact that he did not make a confessional statement (Hindustan Times, 21 December, Sunday Times, 23 December 2001). On 21 December 2001, police paraded the four accused before the press. Subsequently the press conference was broadcast on national television; and during the press conference only accused Mohammad Afzal was allowed to speak; he reportedly admitted to the attack on the parliament. The other accused were not allowed to speak nor was the press permitted to question any of the accused.

Mohammad Afzal during the press conference reportedly declared that Abdul Rehman Geelani had not been involved in the attack. On 2 July 2002, Mohammad Afzal filed a statement in court withdrawing his confessional statement which he declared had been written by the Deputy Commissioner of Police. Amnesty International deplored the parading of the accused before the national media  during which they are made to incriminate themselves. "It violates their right to be presumed innocent until convicted according to law in the course of fair proceedings.

Geelani`s advocate, N. D. Pancholi, has filed a defamation petition against  the Hindustan Times in the Court of Additional  Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Delhi. His petition states that the defamatory reports were published "with a  view to defame the complainant with deliberate intention to harm the reputation of the complainant and also with a view to lower the moral and intellectual character of the complainant in the eyes of his friend, relatives, and public at large. The accused did not publish the aforesaid news items in Hindustan Times dated. 17.12.2001 in good faith."

On  December 22, 2002  the Hindu  carried an article on issues of admissibility of certain types of evidence in the Parliament attack trial. It referred to one such piece of evidence, an interview given by Mohammed Afzal to the Aaj Tak news channel, while he was in police custody and which contained a reference to S.A.R. Geelani. The videotape was played in court and clearly showed  Afzal saying that he had never shared an information with Geelani, but that the latter had told him that he suspected he was up to some mischief.

"I never shared any information with him. But one day he told me: `Afzal, you are up to some mischief`. That day I came to know that he knew something about me but not from me; he actually knows this from Shaukat. So then to keep him at bay I told him that there were two Pakistanis with me, who I had brought from Kashmir. They basically want to go to UAE; so to keep him at bay, I told him this much."

Two reporters involved in this interview, Shams Tahir Khan and Manish Pandey, were made defence witnesses. Shams Tahir Khan had stated that when he asked a question about Geelani to Afzal, ACP Rajbir Singh was there and Afzal answered the question but the ACP shouted at him that he was not to say anything about Geelani. On October 11, 2002 the Hindu had reported in detail Khan’s statement: "The Aaj Tak correspondent, Shams Tahir Khan, giving evidence in court said that the ACP, who was present during the interview, had shouted at Mr. Afzal, saying he had instructed him not to say anything about Mr. Geelani. He also confirmed that other journalists, from NDTV/Star News and Zee News, were present at the time. Mr. Khan then added: "Mr. Rajbir had requested that I should remove the lines stated by Mr. Afzal about Geelani ... So, when this interview was telecast on December 20 at 5 p.m. that line was removed.`` The complete version was telecast on a programme `100 days after December 13.`

"Mr. Khan told The Hindu that his decision to edit out Mr. Afzal`s comment about Mr. Geelani was made "because we are dependent on the police for information... Mr. Rajbir Singh is a very good source in the Delhi police`s Special Cell.`` He added that he had not realised what impact his decision would have.  Thus, complicity by the media in putting out what the police wanted to be put out.

On December 13, 2002, One year after the attack, Zee News  telecast a special programme on the attack which said clearly that it was based on the charge sheet filed by the Special Cell of the police. The operative word throughout this programme is "Police  ke mutabik" or according to the police. The programme reconstructs, using  actors, the events leading up to the attack. It recreates a meeting in Shaukat’s house where S A R Geelani is present, and shows him seated there when the plan to attack Parliament is announced. In retrospect this has been proved to be a complete fabrication, since the High Court has said that  no evidence was produced linking Geelani with knowledge of the attack. 

Individual journalists have, through this period striven to prove Geelani’s innocence or strenuously questioned the basis for the POTA case against him. 

Among them were Prem Shankar Jha in Outlook,  a special correspondent at the Hinduand Sankarshan Thakur in the Sunday Express, "Remember December 13?" The Milli Gazette also took up his cause.For the future, what the Geelani case underscores is the danger of sourcing stories only from the police. In the case of another Gilani, Iftekar, as an article on the Hoot will show, again much injustice was done to his reputation by newspapers and TV channels basing their evidence purely on that supplied by the police.

 

Sevanti Ninan is a media commentator, author, and editor of TheHoot.org

 

 

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