Implicated by the media

BY THE HOOT| IN Media Practice | 13/10/2017
In the Aarushi Talwar murder case, the media had scaled new heights of irresponsibility by spreading canards and defamatory stories. The Talwars have now been acquitted by the Allahabad High Court.
Excerpts from THE HOOT’s archive

 

 

The Talwars and presumed guilt

 First published on 06/11/2013

 In show after show, article after article, the Talwars have been demonised,

 writes SHOHINI GHOSH

 In 1985, Arnold Freidman, a talented and award-winning computer teacher is arrested when a shipment of child-porn is intercepted by the police as it is being delivered to his house. The arrest turns the life of Arnold, his wife and three sons into a nightmare. Assuming that reading of child porn was ‘evidence’ of child sexual abuse, Arnold and his teenage son Jesse are charged with multiple counts of sodomy. The meltdown of the Freidman family – Arnold kills himself in prison while Jesse spends 13 years serving his sentence – is the subject of Andrew Jarecki’s masterful documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003). Without declaring Arnold innocent or guilty, Jarecki uncovers the paranoia, moral panic and hysteria that surrounded the case as inhabitants of Great Neck the affluent suburbia of New Jersey launched a witch-hunt.

The police ‘produce’ evidence, unreliable testimonies and outlandish stories. The media declares the Friedmans guilty the day they are arrested. Parents, who would send their children to Arnold for computer lessons, mutate into a lynch-mob and savagely attack Arnold and Jesse within the court premises. The judge, whose job it is to remain impartial, declares on camera that she knew Arnold was guilty the moment she saw him. The verdict was out even before the trial had begun. Shot almost two decades after Arnold Freidman was arrested, the documentary shows how moral panic and mob hysteria evacuated from the trial the most critical of juridical principles; the idea of  reasonable doubt. Jarecki says the film is a request to audiences to open their minds to the possibility that the Freidmans may have been unfairly convicted. Every year, I show this skilfully made, densely-layered and thought-provoking documentary to my students. The post-screening discussion is inevitably haunted by the spectre of the Aarushi–Hemraj murder case as the parallels are unmistakable.  

The media glare on the Aarushi Talwar murder case has been intense but can we say that the public is any wiser because of that? The murder had no witnesses, yet everyone assumes they know what happened. So convinced are some about the guilt of the parents that they see the trial as not a judicial examination of evidence to determine the facts but a legal formality that must necessarily culminate in conviction. This seems to have worked in favour of the prosecution who are demanding ‘speedy justice’ even though the evidence it has produced so far fails to hold up to scrutiny. Take for instance, their reconstruction of the crime.

Rajesh Talwar saw Hemraj and his daughter “in a compromising position” and “under grave and sudden provocation” killed them after which, with the help of his wife, he “dressed up the scene of crime”. But page 29 of the CBI’s own closure report states that there is no evidence of Hemraj’s blood anywhere in Aarushi’s room. So if Hemraj was killed in Aarushi’s room, what happened to the blood? And if he was not killed in Aarushi’s room, what happens to the ‘motive’ of “grave and sudden provocation?

The prosecution claims that having killed Hemraj in Aarushi’s room the Talwars dragged the bludgeoned and blood-soaked body up the staircase (which happens to be outside the apartment and not inside as some reports have insisted) then came down and “dressed the scene of crime.” This implies that they washed the trail of blood on the stairs, wiped their finger-prints off everything they touched, discarded their clothes soaked in Hemraj’s blood (which  means they left the house and came back), locked themselves in (since the next morning, the maid found the door locked from the outside) and sat waiting to be discovered. 

The prosecution explains the missing blood of Hemraj by alleging that the Talwars “dressed-up” the scene of crime. This would imply that the Talwars accomplished the impossible task of mopping up Hemraj’s blood while leaving Aarushi’s intact! (The Defence had good reason to ask whether the colour of Hemraj’s blood was blue for it to have been selectively cleaned!) Now, if the Talwars have indeed demonstrated such expertise, skill and pre-mediation as assumed by the prosecution then they must surely be experienced, cold-blooded killers who under the guise of dentistry, have perfected the art of killing. In which case, the motive of “grave and sudden provocation” comes crashing down. Because if this ‘motive’ has to be established, Hemraj’s blood must surely be found in Aarushi’s room. If not, we must ask, who killed Hemraj on the terrace and why?  

In a case that has no eye-witnesses and only circumstantial evidence, the prosecution’s case must be definite, clear and unambiguous. Every link in the chain of evidence must lead to only one conclusion. If we look at the evidence that the prosecution has produced so far, we have good reason to doubt whether the guilt of the accused has been proved beyond reasonable doubt. 

Why has this not been brought to the attention of the public? For reasons that elide easy answers, large sections of the media (and public) have identified so completely with the filicidal narrative that a consideration of other possibilities was long foreclosed. This narrative was first floated by Inspector General of Police (Meerut) Gurudarshan Singh, who had ‘solved’ the case even before investigations could begin. In a widely publicised press conference he declared that Rajesh, who was as “characterless as his daughter” had committed the murders after discovering Aarushi and Hemraj in “an objectionable but not compromising position”. 

Singh was transferred for his defamatory utterances but his ‘story’ gathered momentum across the media. On May 25, 2008, Zee News telecast a show called Crime File where anchor Manoj Raghuvanshi doubling as mind-reader authoritatively claimed that Aarushi had sought comfort in an affair with Hemraj because her father was having an extra-marital affair. The lurid story was accompanied by graphic fictional reconstructions. A lack of ethics has distinguished Zee News. In December 2003, the channel telecast a ‘docu-drama’ on the Parliament Attack case depicting the then prime suspect SAR Geelani as the mastermind. As is now well known, none of the charges could be proved and Geelani was acquitted by the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court. Zee News did not express any regret or tender an apology.  

But in the Aarushi Talwar murder case, the electronic media has been uniformly guilty. They scaled new heights of irresponsibility by confounding speculation and facts, spreading canards and defamatory stories. In show after show, article after article, the Talwars were demonised as decadent, immoral, unfeeling, unrepentant, scheming and resourceful.  Therefore, when a deranged vigilante within the court premises assaulted Rajesh Talwar with a meat cleaver inflicting serious injuries, bloggers applauded. Columnist Shobha De endorsed the attack with a cavalier “Tough-luck Talwar”. De had long declared the couple guilty because they did not conform to her idea of grieving parents. Under the relentless, unblinking gaze of the media, grieving was a luxury the Talwars could not afford. But a horror story lay as much on the other side because the seemingly ‘normal’ custodians of morality and decency had morphed into an amorphous lynch-mob for whom ‘justice for Aarushi’ was beginning to mean ‘punish the parents.’  

An atmosphere of prejudice is always an excellent smokescreen for manoeuvre and this seems to have worked perfectly for the investigating authorities. The complex history of the case with its many twists and turns added to the confusion. Two CBI teams have investigated the case and their findings are completely contrary. The 1st CBI team that took charge on June 1, 2008 found no evidence to charge Rajesh Talwar but enough to name Hemraj’s friends Krishna Thadarai, Raj Kumar and Vijay Mandal as the prime suspects. 

When in September 2009 for reasons not made public, the 1st CBI team was replaced by a 2nd team led by AGN Kaul, the findings were turned upside-down. Kaul assigned MS Dahiya of the Directorate of Forensic Sciences, Gandhinagar to generate a new crime-scene report. Within two weeks Dahiya had produced a reconstruction that revived the dad-killed-daughter theory. The ‘resurrection’ was not based on the discovery of new ‘evidence’ but on inferences made by Dahiya when he looked at photographs of the scene of crime! Such plot turnarounds notwithstanding, the CBI could not produce any evidence to chargesheet the Talwars. This fact is explicitly stated in the closure report submitted by the CBI in December 2010. 

The CBI closure report abounds in contradictions and unsubstantiated charges but weaves a subtextual narrative implicating the Talwars. What makes this report particularly intriguing is its refusal to even consider the possibility of outsiders being involved. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary- like the disclosures made by the suspects and major deception revealed in lie detector tests, brain-mapping and narco-analysis – the report absolves the prime suspects of the 1st team on the basis of what appears to be casual generalisations like “no intruder would bother to dress the scene of crime” and “no intruder would hide the body of the victim” and so on.  In response to this inconclusive report, the Talwars filed a protest petition requesting further investigation. The magistrate of the Ghaziabad court rejected the petition and charged the Talwars with murder and destruction of evidence. Nupur Talwar who was never an accused was now named as one. 

Failing to produce “sufficient evidence” or a “clear-cut motive” for murder, the closure report left a trail of damaging insinuations. But when the case went to trial the CBI was left with the daunting task of turning insinuation into evidence. Here it would seem that friends in the press came handy. Evidence that could not be recovered from the scene of crime was made to materialise in the pages of newspapers.

"The media glare on the Aarushi Talwar murder case has been intense but can we say that the public is any wiser because of that? "

 

On March 3, 2011, the front-page of The Hindustan Times carried the headline: “CBI says Killer Wore Gloves”.  The “HT Exclusive” by Abhishekh Saran reports that the CBI “suspects that the killer had used gloves to avoid leaving finger prints at the crime scene” and that “the finding that the killer wore gloves can help the CBI unravel the mystery over the mismatch between the smudges and bloodstains on the whiskey bottle and fingerprints of the Talwars” but that the “CBI has not found the gloves yet.” 

Had this not involved the lives and reputation of real people, we could have laughed. How does something that has not been found – and whose very existence is a mere speculation – be called a “finding”? Second, why was the role of gloves not even mentioned in the closure report? Third, there was no mystery about the “mismatch” between the bloodstains on the whiskey bottle and the fingerprints of the Talwars because the report of the Finger Print Division of CFSL, New Delhi, had categorically stated that the fingerprints on the whiskey bottle did not match that of Rajesh and Nupur Talwar! 

The collaboration between the investigating authorities and sections of the press seemed to continue through the trial. News reports would mysteriously appear on the morning of the hearings, anticipating the day’s proceedings. On April 24, 2011 the Times of India carried the sensational headline: “Only Parents Could Have Killed Aarushi” going by which the readers could be forgiven for thinking that the courts had already delivered their verdict. The headline was merely reiterating the long-held position of the prosecution. 

"The collaboration between the investigating authorities and sections of the press seemed to continue through the trial"

 

The rest of the ‘report’ provided a preview to the contents of the counter-affidavit that the CBI would present in court that day. Reporter Dhananjay Mahapatra, confusing perhaps the role of the journalist with that of the judge, certified the document to be “precise and damning for the couple”.  On October 6, 2013, the name of the same journalist appeared in the by-line of another ‘report’ that reproduced the CBI’s oft-repeated chant that the Talwars were indulging in “delaying tactics.” This arrangement is useful for all: the CBI gets to air its views as news while the journalist is spared the trouble of going all the way to Ghaziabad to figure what’s happening in the courtroom. 

With the support (inadvertent or otherwise) of unquestioning media professionals,  the shape-shifting of the prosecution’s case continued unabated. Dr Sunil Dohre who had conducted the post-mortem on Aarushi’s body and had certified on the form NAD (‘Nothing Abnormal Detected’), produced during the course of the trial, a brand new testimony. He suddenly remembered that her vaginal orifice was “unduly large” and that her “ruptured” hymen had an “old tear”. Neither the courts nor the media asked Dohre why these observations had not been written in his post-mortem report or why they were not recorded in his official statement annexed to the closure report.

Read the rest of the article here.

 

*  *  *  *

 

Maligned by police and media?

 First published on 14/08/2010

 

Noting the manner in which information was appearing in the media, the apex court asked the CBI, "Who are these anonymous sources dishing out information to the press?"

Investigation in the Arushi murder case raises disturbing questions about the role of the police and media, says MADABHUSHI SRIDHAR

The recent intervention by the Supreme Court into the investigation of the murder case of teenaged Arushi Talwar has shown how the proclivity of the police to go to the media with half baked stories and theories, and the latter’s trigger-happy reporting can completely muddle the search for truth. The case has raised several issues pertaining to the manner in which information is leaked out, the victims’ family’s rights, journalistic ethics, the police and the media’s liability for defamation and the people’s right to know.

The Supreme Court cautioned the media (9th August 2010) against irresponsible reporting affecting the honour of a crime victim. Advocate Surat Singh filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court in 2008 seeking restraint in reporting in the wake of "wild allegations" levelled by Noida police, which first investigated the Aarushi Talwar murder case.  The Bench comprising Justices Altamas Kabir and A K Patnaik passed the order after counsel for Arushi pointed out the repeated telecasts casting aspersion on the character of the victim, the Talwars and their deceased servant. Surat Singh asked, "Can freedom of press be allowed to degenerate into a licence to malign the character of a dead person? Does our Constitution not guarantee the right to privacy even to the dead?" He sought the court’s restriction on reportage till the investigation was complete.  Arushi’s father also sought similar restraint on media. Talwar said the reporting by a section of the electronic and print media was prejudicing their case and damaging their reputation.

The Supreme Court said: "We not only reiterate our interim order of July 22, 2008, but also restrain the respondents from publishing material which has potential to interfere with the process of investigation of all cases.’’ In 2008, a Bench comprising Justices Kabir and Markandey Katju had said, "We will only observe that both the print and electronic media should exercise caution in publishing any news regarding the case which may prejudice the case or damage reputations." In August 2008 the same bench said: "We are not worried about ourselves. We have sufficiently broad shoulders but we are concerned about the reputation of people as was in Dr (Rajesh) Talwar’s case. When trial court is seized of the matter, ie, sub judice, the media’s role is restricted. Extreme caution and care in reporting such cases was required, as it is not only the reputation of a person but a person is held guilty even before the trial in the case is over….In this case, what is the positive evidence against them (the accused)? "

The apex court further explained recently: "We however clarify that this would not prohibit publication of information which will not interfere with investigation, damage reputation or prejudice the accused……The press is important in a democracy. But it must observe self-restraint. When it fails to self-regulate, what can be done? No one says do not report. But do it in a manner so that none of the parties' reputation is tarnished. What is involved here is a young girl's reputation. Have some sensibility while reporting."  
 

A section of the media called this a ‘gag order’. Times of India (August 10, 2010) said: ‘SC has virtually slapped a ban on source-based news stories in matters under investigation in an order which can alter the journalism landscape.’ In fact the Supreme Court was issuing only a case specific order and this right of the accused to privacy is well protected by the Constitution and it does not restrain the media from investigating a crime.

Noting the manner in which information was appearing in the media, the apex court asked the CBI, "Who are these anonymous sources dishing out information to the press?" Senior advocate Pinaki Mishra said while the the Talwars cooperated with the investigating agencies in every way, the CBI kept leaking information to the media which sensationalized the case. "It is virtually a trial by a voyeuristic media presenting an incident in an extremely malicious manner," he said. (Times of India, August 10, 2010)

"The state of the Talwars and Durranis marriages were questioned and rumour, bit of gossip or loose remark gave rise to ‘breaking news’ or ‘turning point’"

 

Vandana K Mittal wrote: "The credibility of the investigating authorities has taken a further beating with the IG police being accused of exhibiting a deeply biased and conservative mindset by commenting on the character of the father as well as the murdered daughter. As a confused nation listens to every twist and turn of the case disturbing questions arise about how this case is being investigated by the cops, covered by the media and followed by the people. Senior cops like the IG Gurdarshan Singh stepped in to ensure that the public trial (outside of a courtroom) of all those involved was complete. We have had the IG making (so far unproved and totally speculative) allegations about the kind of relationship that Aarushi shared with the domestic help, Hemraj. Enraptured by his two minutes of fame on national television the good cop went on to call the father and daughter, both, people of loose character. Anita Durrani was unveiled on live TV as the ‘other woman’ in the case. Even a young friend, only 17 years of age, was not spared and he was named by police in direct contravention of international norms where all efforts are taken to protect the identity of the under aged. His mobile number was incessantly flashed on TV screens. How this young boy is going to cope with the unwanted attention at this young age is anybody’s guess.’’ (http://www.merinews.com/article/aarushi-murder-case-trial-by-media-and-its-implications/134631.shtml.

 

A botched investigation and a trigger happy media 

With the police dishing out these types of comments, the media went to town maligning the family and Arushi’s friends and acquaintances. They spoke of the family’s life style, Arushi’s habits, her relationship with her friends and of course about the servant. Words such as relation, affair, nexus, closeness and friendship were used out of context to give rise to further suspicion and speculation. The state of the Talwars and Durranis marriages were questioned and rumour, bit of gossip or loose remark gave rise to ‘breaking news’ or ‘turning point’. 

As the police suspected the Talwar’s domestic help Hemraj, the media spun stories of a relationship between victim and this servant till the police recovered his body from the rooftop of the Talwars' house. He had also been murdered the same day and the police then suspected that Arushi’s father had committed the crime

The Noida police needs to be berated for the insensitive manner in which they indulged in character assassination without any evidence. In the very initial stages of the investigation they had termed the victim as being characterless. They developed a theory that her father, Ramesh Talwar had an affair with Anita Durrani, and the murder followed Arushi’s knowledge of this and her intimate relationship with the domestic help which Talwar objected to.

Investigators had arrested Arushi’s father, Rajesh, alleging that he had killed his daughter and the servant in a fit of rage induced by alcohol after he found them in an "objectionable but not compromising" position. Police based their findings on the fact that the keys to the doors to the apartment where Arushi was found murdered and where Hemraj’s body was found were with the Talwar’s and since both parents claimed not to have heard any noises through the night, when they were beaten to death. But since they found no evidence, the police had to release Rajesh. (The Hindu, September 4, 2009)

Hindustan Times (June 13, 2008) reported: `Some channels went berserk after Meerut IGP Gurdarshan Singh made the sensational claim that Aarushi and Hemraj were killed by Rajesh.’ ``The television channels conducted media trial of Aarushi, who was not there to defend herself. It would have got them higher TRPs but did a lot of harm to the young soul," said Bharati Ali of HAQ for Child Rights, an NGO.

On May 23, the day Rajesh Talwar was arrested the TRP ??" the viewership-measuring index ??" for this coverage by Hindi and English news channels was higher than that for the IPL match between Mohali and Hyderabad. Five top Hindi news channels had cumulative TRP of over one point as compared to 0.96 for the IPL match, says aMAP, a company that rates television programmes. Television Audience Measurement (TAM), another company in the business of TRP gave the news channels close to nine points as compared to 7.5 for the IPL match. Rights activists said the high TRPs could have been also due to insensitive reporting.  According to TAM, the TRP of Hindi news channels jumped about two points.

The jump was confirmed by aMAP too. The head of a Hindi news channel said the Aarushi case was the single most important factor for the jump. Sabhyata Arora, a child physiologist at NGO Pratidhi, said the reason why everyone was hooked onto the Aarushi story was that it had something for parents as well as children.  "Parents wanted to know about the relationship between a child and parents in an influential family. Children were interested to see what was happening to their peer group," she said.  (June 13, 2008 Hindustan Times).

 Read the rest here.  

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