Murthal rapes: the risks of premature news

BY TANAY SUKUMAR| IN Media Practice | 29/02/2016
The initial Tribune story, with no victims and limited evidence, raises questions about reporting during social unrest when rumours abound.
TANAY SUKUMAR reports

 

Unsafe women or violent protests within a few dozen kilometres of the national capital will invariably make the front page news. When the two combine, the front page of the day possibly does not need anything else. Except when the reporter himself claims the story is based on limited sources.

Over the last week, there have been dark clouds over what actually happened in Murthal during the Jat agitation following The Tribune’s front page report of February 24 about women commuters being “raped”. Some more eyewitnesses surfaced on Saturday and on Sunday, a Delhi woman finally emerged as a victim, albeit for a rape she alleges happened at least a day after what the story claimed.

The Tribune story itself said that the Haryana police dismissed the incident as a “rumour” and yet, despite limited evidence, verification, bona fide sources, or victims, as on that day, the story made front page news, if not incorrectly, then prematurely.

The entire episode could have been clearer if the reporting had been  as concrete as the impact it wanted to create. Even if its claim turns out to be true, the story still shows that the media can be vulnerable, if not totally unreliable, in the face of the rumours that almost always fly around in times of crisis and mayhem.

It is, after all, totally plausible to believe that relying only on villagers’ accounts, it could also have been based on rumours in the absence of victim accounts and in-depth verification by the reporter. In addition, other key issues with the story and what followed were the use of the word “rape” and passing the blame onto the Jat agitators, even when nothing was known for sure.

Citizens becoming journalists are not as much a threat to this profession as the reverse. While the doubts are not about the “eyewitness” accounts, questions need to be asked about The Tribune’s half-baked report on February 24 and what precedent it sets.

A police report on Saturday, February 27, stated that one of the reporters, Parveen Arora, had said he wrote his report based solely on eyewitness accounts. Initially, The Hindu said that when its team interacted with “dozens of locals across three villages”, they denied any such incident. Scroll.in also said that villagers denied knowledge of anything of this kind.

On Saturday, eyewitness accounts referred to different times and dates of what they had “witnessed”. In this Indian Express report, truck driver Niranjan Singh referred to 11:30 am on February 22 and Satbir Singh referred to the night of February 21-22. On Sunday, some truck drivers denied reports of rape.

Meanwhile, the victim said she knew the seven rapists, one of whom was her brother-in-law. A police officer said the claims of rape could be the outcome of a “family dispute”. The victim claimed to have been raped on the night of February 22-23, a day after the Tribune’s claims.

The Tribune story led the Punjab & Haryana High Court and the National Commission for Women to take notice. It led into an entire police investigation which seems confused. The Saturday police report said, “The reporter said no victim has been in touch with him, and he came to know of the incident only through people present there, whose names the story mentions. However, those people have clearly said that they did not talk about any molestation, and the reporter did the wrong thing by publishing such a wrong story.”

 

ABP Live reported finding the torn undergarments of women on the spot. How could The Tribune reporters have missed this clinching piece of evidence on the first day itself, since they visited the various eateries? In this context, though, the police report also said that CCTV footage of the Amrik Sukdev Dhaba does not show any women coming with torn clothes that night.

In fact, Sonepat SP Abhishek Garg told Scroll.in, “We found some clothes lying at the edge of Hasanpur village but on examining them, we found that they had been discarded many days before, and had marks of rain and being weathered.” 

It is true that the earlier police versions of the claims being “rumours” can also not be trusted entirely if they indeed discouraged the victims from filing a complaint. But even this does not absolve the initial Tribune story of its journalistic blunders. 

Another problem with the story is the use of the word “rape”. In the face of weak evidence, limited sources and no identified victims at all, there is no explanation for using the word. An eyewitness - a truck driver – used the phrase “ulta seedha kaam” which loosely translates into “something wrong” but not “rape”.

Further damage was done, if not factually, then journalistically, when the sexual violence was associated with the Jat agitation. Nowhere does the Tribune report suggest that the women were assaulted by the agitators, but Zee News and ABP Live went on to say so, even though they have not come across the culprits yet.

This led the Jat agitators to suggest that the reports are a tactic to kill the protests. Mayank Dalal, secretary of the Akhil Bhartiya Adarsh Jat Mahasabha, was reported as saying by Scroll.in that “reports of sexual violence were a tactic that would allow the government to take repressive steps to quell the Jat agitation”.

P. P. Kapoor, an RTI activist, is also said to have claimed that he spoke to eyewitnesses and that they were scared for their safety. The Hindu and Firstpost quoted him as saying that even the eyewitnesses did not use the word “rape”.

All witnesses actually identified by The Tribune on February 24 gave quotes which could fit into an entirely different context: 

[…] Amrik Singh, owner of the dhaba, said they learnt about the incident at 3 am when some travellers heard the victims wailing. He said a blockade on the highway was removed by the security forces a kilometre away from the dhaba after a mild lathi charge. Some youths hid themselves in the fields. After the security personnel, who escorted the stranded vehicles, had left the site, some of them came out. […]

[…] Shaken up by the incident, village elders Hari Krishan of Kurad and Zile Singh of Hassanpur said they didn’t want to talk about the incident as “the police are sure to shield the criminals and nobody, not even the locals, are safe.” Jai Bhagwan, who too runs a dhaba on the highway, said four young women took refuge inside a water tank near his dhaba.  “We turned off the lights so as not to attract the attention of the goons. The hapless women remained there for hours till they were escorted out at daybreak.” […]

It is reasonable to believe that Amrik Singh and Jai Bhagwan might also be referring to the violence going on that night, following which commuters on the highway took shelter in the dhabas. Did the reporters talk to these two named sources about the violence that night or the sexual attacks in particular?

In fact, Amrik Singh was quoted as saying by The Hindu that “he and his employees offered shelter to many, including women, but none of them were victims of sexual assault”. Scroll.in also quoted a staff member of the dhaba as saying that over 100 people took shelter at the dhaba that day. If so many people were present, some of the guests must have known about women being molested.

Hari Krishan and Zile Singh were not identified as “witnesses” but as “village elders”. Nor did they categorically claim that anything of this sort took place. They could be referring to rumours and not something they saw themselves. Did the reporters talk to these two named sources about what they saw or what they had heard?Hari Krishan, in fact, told Scroll.in that he had left for home on Sunday 6 pm, at least eight hours before the incident. All the other people actually quoted in the story, which certainly suggests sexual violence, are not identified. 

A follow-up report by The Tribune quoted Raj Kumar Dahiya, a social worker, as saying that villagers know about the incident but are worried about their safety. However, this does not let the first story off on the litmus test of journalistic values of unquestionable reporting.

We may never know the truth, but the question about the role of journalism in times of unrest and rumours – rumours that are sometimes floated for vested interests – remains. Before publishing the story, the reporters could have verified the claims to substantiate them. They could have probed deeper to identify the police officers present that night at the dhabas. If the victims could not be traced, the story was incomplete without knowing what other commuters saw that night.

The eyewitness accounts might be authentic, but the media reportage has certainly not been journalistic.

 

Tanay Sukumar is a journalism student at Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bangalore. Earlier, he founded and edited an award-winning satirical website, and is a Teach For India alum. He can be contacted on tanay.s91@gmail.com.

 

 

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