A hero’s welcome for Lt Col Purohit

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Media Practice | 01/09/2017
Never has a terror accused released on bail received the kind of welcome Times Now and Republic TV accorded to Malegaon blast accused Lt Col Purohit.
JYOTI PUNWANI’S bemused account

 

HERE’S LOOKING AT  US
Jyoti  Punwani
 

 

Never has a terror accused been given the kind of welcome on his release on bail, as was accorded to Malegaon blast accused Lt Col Purohit by news channels Times Now and Republic TV.

 ``Exclusive’’ interviews with the accused; syrupy exchanges with his wife; running commentaries on the accused  being escorted out of prison…Republic TV even had a headline saying ``continuous coverage’’.

As it turned out, the coverage by both was quite hilarious.  

Sample the following:

``First interview of Lt Col Purohit’’ went the headline on Republic TV, and this was it:  ``Love your nation, keep serving your nation.’’  These two sentences made up the accused army man’s reply on being asked what he had to say after having been granted bail. But that’s not what the reporter wanted. So he kept at it: You were in jail for nine years, do you think it was because of the mistake of any authority ? Purohit simply said: `I’m not going to say anything.’’ Not one to give up, the reporter beseeched him: ``You will be out of jail tomorrow at 11 am. We expect that your first interview will be to Republic.”  Prompt came the reply: ``Have hopes.’’ Or was it ``high hopes?” 

One more exclusive followed. ``Lt Col speaks to Republic again’’, was the headline, with the hashtag #PurohittoRepublic.  The visual showed many reporters around the accused army man, who only kept saying: ``I can’t say anything’’, ``I will not talk about the case’’, ending with ``I am just happy now, that’s it, and again, Jai Hind’’.

As he left, the reporters followed him. ``Is there a Ganpati established in your house?’’ asked one. ```Are you waiting to meet your mother and eat?’’ ``Food,’’ added as an afterthought.

This 1.25 minute clip was replayed four times on Republic TV. After that the anchor came on.  ``That viewers, is Lt Col Purohit taking direct questions from my colleague Aditya.’’

Times Now, which ran the coverage with a headline #Justice for Purohit, and below that: ``Bail for army `hero’’’, also had its own `exclusive’. Its reporter repeated the same question four times: ``Have you been framed? Do you feel you have been framed?’’ Then came an answer, somewhat inaudible because of the surrounding noise: ``It is not a feeling.’’ The reporter then asked twice over:  ``It’s not a feeling, so it’s a fact?”  The accused: ``Obviously.’’

End of interview.

Then there was the Times Now reporter asking Purohit’s wife: ``It’s been nine long years… How long have you not been in touch with him?’’ her voice dripping with sympathy.

``Ten days,’’ replied the wife.

All of this could have been laughed off had it not been for the opinions voiced by the anchors of both channels throughout the coverage. They made it clear that the Colonel who was arrested for the 2008 Malegaon blast which killed 7 Muslims, had been framed by the Congress to build up the theory of  ``saffron terror’’, in order to ``get into appeasement’’. The case ``reeked of’’ having been framed for political reasons.  The granting of bail was described as ``justice having been done’’. While Republic had headlines such as ``Who fixed the Colonel?’’  ``Who will give him nine years back?’’ Times Now’s headline said ``Army `hero’ out on bail’. Indeed, the day before  bail was granted, Republic summarized a ``statement’’ from him, presenting his version.

``It’s in fact full support of the Indian army for Lt Col Purohit,’’ breathed the Times Now reporter as the accused officer was escorted out of jail by army vehicles. ``This is also to tell the world at large that the Indian army is with Col Purohit, that he was wrongly charged with terror charges, that’s what the army is trying to say, at least from the visuals we can only think of that.’’

Interestingly, the reporter in his excitement went on to say that this was the first time the army had openly showed its support for its accused officer. Until now, its support had been through ``off camera briefings, leaking of documents such as commission of inquiry reports.’’

Good to know that.

NDTV and India Today were not so gung-ho about the army. Both channels had special episodes questioning the army’s escorting a terror accused out of jail.

Times Now and Republic TV persisted in linking the case to the Congress despite the obvious reluctance of Purohit, his wife, even his lawyers, to dwell on this aspect, though all of them touched upon it. Ironically, it was left to ``legal eagle’’ Harish Salve, (Republic TV used this epithet whenever they mentioned Salve who had argued  Purohit’s bail application), his other lawyer Neela Gokhale and  Purohit’s wife to point out that he was only out on bail, and that he still had to face a trial where his fate would be decided by the court. When Salve said the case had to run its course, the Republic TV anchor reproached him for being too ``measured’’. 

Aparna Purohit’s gentle reminder to the Times Now reporter that they still had a long way to go,  didn’t faze the latter.  She informed the accused’s wife that Harish Salve had said that the maximum punishment her husband would face would be seven years and he had already spent that much time behind bars, ``so he’s not going back to jail.’’

"When Salve said the case had to run its course, the Republic TV anchor reproached him for being too ``measured"

 

Arnab Goswami, who started his programme by saying: ``Srikant has got bail’’, went on to rue that the Colonel had started being referred to as ``Terrorist Purohit”, instead of ``Lt Col Purohit’’. ``That hurt him the most, almost brought him to tears,’’ said Goswami, in his most sensitive tone.

``Terrorist Purohit’’? This writer is still wondering who had referred to the accused army officer in those terms.

Goswami then gushed about having had the privilege of knowing Purohit’s wife over the years. ``I’m really happy,’’ he said.

``Nine years without bail’’, ``nine years without charges being framed’’ – not just Times Now and Republic TV, but all news channels couldn’t stop emphasizing this terror-accused’s ``nine year ordeal’’.  But did they try to find out what had caused the delay? Harish Salve gave a clue when he mentioned that the accused’s appeal against MCOCA had been finally decided only in 2015.

Considering that this was a continuing story, the reporters had had enough time to find out why Purohit was getting bail after so many years. They just didn’t want to spoil the heartrending ``nine years narrative’’ by explaining it.

Though India Today’s coverage was balanced, it too ran a completely one-sided report from Pune, where the terror accused’s family lives. One of his friends was interviewed, a man of few words, who declared that his friend was innocent. Anchor Avantika and reporter Pankaj Khelkar made up for his laconic style by waxing eloquent not only about how Purohit was made a ``pawn in a political conspiracy’’, but also how ``we could see it on his face – how he has suffered for nine years’’.

Others too have suffered, and for longer periods. Have these channels ever accorded the same gushing treatment to the Muslim terror accused who come out of prison after 10 years, 14 years? Have they asked their wives/mothers how they’ve managed the social ostracism they’ve invariably faced? Most of these Muslim accused come out only after having been honourably acquitted, for rarely do the courts favour them with bail. Yet, no channel fetes them on their innocence having been proved by the court, their ``honour’’ having been restored . No channel narrates the suffering the State has inflicted on them. No channel asks them if they would take action against the agencies who framed them.

"Have these channels ever accorded the same gushing treatment to the Muslim terror accused who come out of prison after 10 years, 14 years? "

 

Purohit’s bail has not come in a vacuum. NDTV, CNN IBN and India Today mentioned the backdrop of Hindutva terror cases coming apart after the BJP government came to power. From each one of them, one learnt something new. While India Today’s Gaurav Sawant spoke about the aspersions cast upon the NIA chief who has been getting extension after extension, CNN IBN’s legal reporter Utkarsh Anand gave a detailed description of the way the NIA had ``diluted’’ the charges against Purohit and its half-hearted opposition to the colonel’s bail application in the Supreme Court.

NDTV’s Sreenivasan Jain’s `Reality check’ had former public prosecutor Rohini Salian on the show. She stood by her allegation that she had been asked to go soft by the NIA. Jain asked Salve about all this, and despite the eminent lawyer’s sarcasm and annoyance, kept reading transcripts of incriminating conversations from the case papers. ``You talk about justice, but when one accused after the other gets bail, where is the justice?” he asked Salve.

Again, in the face of RSS spokesman Rakesh Sinha’s agitated denials about saffron terror, Jain repeatedly pointed out that of the three Hindus convicted by the trial court in the Ajmer blast, two were RSS pracharaks. That provoked Sinha into asking: ``But has the Supreme Court convicted them?”

If it does, will Sinha accept that saffron terror exists? Jain didn’t ask that question, but viewers can keep it in mind.

None of this background, crucial to understanding any case, was raised by either the Times Now or Republic TV’s anchors.

Surprisingly, even the Times of India, after making the Supreme Court’s granting of bail the main Page one lead, and devoting half of page 2 and two other stories inside to Purohit, did not give this background. Indeed, in the inside report on the bail proceedings, the paper described the Malegaon blast in which Purohit is the main accused, thus: ``attack on Muslim targets allegedly carried out by Hindutva radicals to avenge the deaths of Hindus in a wave of jihadi attacks’’.  It  was the only newspaper to ascribe motives for the blast.  

The next day, it had an interview with the accused. Wrote the paper’s Law Editor Swati Deshpande: ``His absolute faith in the armed forces shone through every word.’’  

Indian Express went one step ahead of TOI in its reportage – while the front page story reported the grounds for bail, three other reports on Page 9 were in favour of Purohit and his co-accused. His friends were interviewed, and his army honours and citations reproduced.

Neither of the two national papers which have Mumbai editions, thought fit to interview Rohini Salian.

"Wrote the paper’s Law Editor Swati Deshpande: ``His absolute faith in the armed forces shone through every word"

 

However, the Express also had a backgrounder on the same day on Page 11. Rahul Tripathi explained the allegations against the army man, and revealed that the NIA had recorded statements of Military Intelligence officers who said they were not aware of his alleged undercover operation to infiltrate the Hindutva organization Abhinav Bharat. That he had kept his seniors informed had been Purohit’s strongest defence in the Supreme Court.

On August 31, the Indian Express had another report. titled `Probe said Purohit held `illegal’ meetings with radical Hindu groups’. Deeptiman Tiwary quoted in detail a 2011 inquiry report of the Directorate General of Military Intelligence which nailed Purohit’s defence. Unfortunately, it was on Page 10.

One statement repeated by Harish Salve in all interviews was that witnesses had told the NIA that their statements to the Maharashtra ATS, the agency that arrested Purohit, were given under pressure. But it was only Mumbai Mirror’s Sharmeen Hakim who explained why the NIA had to record statements of these witnesses again, when the ATS had already done so. It was because these statements had mysteriously disappeared last year.

The coverage by the Hindustan Times and the Hindu was balanced. Both had the first report of bail having been granted on page one. In that report itself, HT’s Bhadra Sinha linked the bail to the pattern of Hindutva terror cases falling apart. Two days later, Presley Thomas had another backgrounder, indicting the ATS for its feeble defence of its own case.

The Hindu had a daring headline – given the hype surrounding this army officer -- `A former MCOCA detainee gets bail’ with a picture of the accused officer covering his face. 

The next day, a special correspondent quoted a retired intelligence officer connected with the case expressing unhappiness at the way the NIA had soft-pedalled it. The article’s headline however, was misleading: `Purohit bail will have no bearing on trial'.

Overall, the coverage of the Supreme Court granting bail to  the first serving army officer to be charged with a terrorist act, went in his favour. Visuals being more powerful than text, it is difficult to forget the cameras that followed this accused as he left court and jail, and the tearful interviews given by his wife. Even in print, it is baffling how no newspaper thought fit to interview the families of those who were killed in the blasts that Purohit is accused of engineering. The TOI  did however, quote two Muslim Congress leaders from Malegaon who said they might file a review petition against the Supreme Court order.

But the coverage by Times Now and Republic TV was disturbing in its open bias. The two are said to be the most-watched English news channels. By declaring the first army officer to be charged with terror as innocent even before the court does so, by calling him a hero, what message are they sending to their viewers, specifically to Muslims? Their coverage matters specially to Muslims for two reasons: 1) Muslims are immediately accused the moment a terrorist act takes place; 2) the spate of Hindutva terrorist acts, to which Purohit is linked, have specifically targeted Muslims.   

 

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