Will Katju sort out press media’s priorities: Case of SC judgments on Bombay 1993 blasts

On 21 March 2013, the Supreme Court gave its judgmentin the various appeals by the accused who were convicted on 12 September 2006 by a specially designated TADA court for their role in the 1993 Bombay serial bombings. The SC largely upheld the TADA court convictions while diluting a few sentences from death to life imprisonment (like for a majority of the 10 bomb planters who were sentenced along with Yakub Memon to death) or reducing the years of imprisonment. Importantly, the Supreme Court also confirmed the convictions of the Government officers (customs officers, police officers) whose cooperation ensured that the arms, ammunitions and explosives sent by Tiger Memon landed on the coast in Raigad district & were transported to their destination in Bombay without any intercepton, discovery & detention. In addition, the Supreme Court also condemned the key role of Pakistan and ISI in the 1993 Bombay blasts.

However, based on the front page headlines of leading English newspapers, one could be excused in thinking that Sanjay Dutt’s role in the aforementioned blasts was somehow more important than those of the many others convicted. Sample these front page headlines of 22 March 2013 (day after the SC judgments) from India’s leading English Language newspapers and what they mentioned about the various parties connected to the blasts.

Newspaper Front page Headlines Customs Police Pakistan
The Times of India- Mumbai edition Bees Saal Baad: SC gives Sanjay 5 yrs, Yakub death, spares 10 the gallows, puts Pak in doc Cops, customs feel the heat Cops, customs feel the heat In a first, SC indicts Pak for fostering terrorism
Hindustan Times- Delhi edition Sanju heads back to jail, Yakub to gallows No mention No mention SC slams Pakistan, ISI
The Indian Express- Mumbai edition Dutt gets 5 years, Yakub death No mention No mention No mention
DNA-Mumbai edition Errorist gets 5 years, Terrorist gets death No mention No mention No mention
The New Indian Express- (Bangalore edition) SC sends Dutt back to Jail No mention No mention No mention

While every single one of them mentions the convictions of Sanjay Dutt & Yakub Memon (with the exception of The New Indian Express that only mentions Sanjay Dutt!), only The Times of India mentions the convictions of the 10 bomb planters, customs officials, police officers and the role of Pakistan & ISI in the serial blasts; the rest were silent about the equally significant convictions of the customs officers (& police officers) without whom, in SC’s words, “they would not be in a position to smuggle the weapons required for the said blasts” that killed 257 and seriously injured 713. Nevermind the fact that it was the first ever terrorist attack where RDX (Research Department Explosive) was used on a large scale basis after the World War II; nevermind the fact that these coordinated blasts were the most destructive bomb explosions in Indian history with unprecedented damage to life and property; nevermind the fact that this was the longest running trial in India’s history that ended with convictions of key parties that were involved in the serial bombings, India’s leading English newspapers were fixated on Sanjay Dutt who was not even convicted under TADA act (under which the rest of the accused were convicted) but under the arms act for possession of arms without license. How the actor got out of the conviction under the TADA act is another story altogether detailed here. The summary above that shows very clearly the low importance and salience given through the front page headlines and mentions to the full context of the judgments is quite disappointing.

The media, especially the news media have an important role to play in a democracy by monitoring, investigating, reporting and criticizing government’s policies, actions and their progress so as to ensure good governance. Also, they inform the public about what are the important issues by their selection and coverage (or lack of it) of various events/issues. As Bernard Cohen said “Press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling readers what to think about”. This aspect of media is known as the agenda setting function of the media. In this case, the media (including the press) diverted the agenda from important issues relating to these convictions and instead is relentlessly pursuing the agenda on Sanjay Dutt’s conviction thereby trivializing the outcome of the long, tardy & painful judicial process.

Given the importance of this case, the media could have chosen to explore any number of angles and thus set the agenda for the public in relation to how it would serve the interests of democracy and good governance in India in as far as national security & other related matters of public interest are concerned. For instance, the media could have explored the role of corrupt & incompetent government officials (police/customs/coast guards) in sabotaging national security and the current state of preparedness and readiness to deal with similar events. It could also have explored the sad state of our judicial system that took such an inordinately long time to deliver justice and bring closure to the families of the victims of the blasts. It possibly could have looked at the role of underworld elements/Pakistan in destabilizing our nation. But no, our news media including the press choose to run along with the story relating to the most high profile of the convictions, that of Sanjay Dutt, to the detriment of damaging a narrative that could have been used to resurrect a public debate to seek answers about the efficiency and readiness of our national security systems that have failed with alarming regularity to protect the lives of our fellow countrymen.

What makes this episode even more disappointing is the silence of Markendaya Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI) whose objective and function it is,among others,

“to ensure on the part of newspapers, news agencies and journalists, the maintenance of high standards of public taste and foster a due sense of both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship”

to keep under review any development likely to restrict the supply and dissemination of news of public interest and importance”

“to encourage the growth of a sense of responsibility and public service among all those engaged in the profession of journalism”

Katju thus far, for whatever reasons, seems either blissfully unaware or unconcerned about his responsibilities in as far as the above mentioned objects and functions of the PCI are concerned. I say this, since as of now, there is no comment from him even mentioning the poor display of the performance of the press as an institution supposed to keep foremost matters relating to the public interests & importance. The PCI, via Katju, doesn’t seem to be interested in attempting to achieve the first two above mentioned objects of the PCI above in a clear cut scenario whereby the press media has disastrously displayed its inability to do what is expected of them.

Katju has shown his concern about the lack of proper educational qualifications affecting the quality of journalists and their reportage that affects the quality of journalism. But he should know that journalists do not decide the public agenda; rather it is the people at the helm of affairs in media companies who do so.  For sometime now, there have been discussions on the social and online media highlighting this sad state of affairs of Indian mainstream media (including the press) detailing its poor and biased news reporting, reports of paid media, cases of opinions, half truths & lies dressed up as facts in reporting. Katju, then, should know that to improve the quality of journalism, the media outcomes need to be targeted which are controlled by the top bosses of these media companies. The focus should be on these media worthies rather than the hapless entry/mid level journalist attempting to make a career in a perverse environment set up by these top bosses that produces poor quality journalism.

We already know that Katju is an ambitious man; what remains to be seen is whether his ambition can be married with the cause of public interest and good governance in this country. I sincerely hope that he will focus his attention on his job as the chairman of PCI and delve deeply into the aforementioned matters. It is unfortunate that he chooses to spend more time on defending the cause of a private citizen who even in 2000, 7 years after the blasts, was in touch and was taking assistance from the underworld elements who have assaulted the rights of  this nation’s citizens to live without harm and fear.

Jayalalithaa violating the Constitutional spirit by barring SL players from IPL?

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s letter to the Indian Prime Minister informing him of her government’s decision not to permit IPL matches in Tamil Nadu is completely out of line as it violates the Constitutional guidelines in as far as it attempts to overstep the State’s powers to deal with an issue which is essentially a matter of Foreign affairs that is in the power of the Central government. The following is the part of the text of the letter to PM that is violative of the constitutionally defined clear roles for the Centre and State:

“The Government of Tamil Nadu will permit IPL matches to be held in Tamil Nadu, only if the organizers provide an undertaking that no Sri Lankan players, umpires, officials or support staff would participate in these matches.”

Article 257 (1) falling under Part XI of the Constitution that deals with ‘Relations between the Union and the States’ states:

“The executive power of every State shall be so exercised as not to impede or prejudice the exercise of the executive power of the Union, and the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of such directions to a State as may appear to the Government of India to be necessary for that purpose.”

In this context, Jayalalithaa’s letter informing the PM about not permitting Sri Lankans to participate in IPL matches played in Tamil Nadu smacks of contempt for constitutional guidelines. Her statement tends to prejudice the Central Government’s exercise of executive power when it comes to the matter of Foreign affairs (all matters which bring the Union into relation with any foreign country); a matter that is placed on the Union List as regards the distribution of legislative powers between the Centre and the State.

As far as I know, the Government of India grants visitor visas to foreigners to enter India and not specific states. Thus Jayalalithaa’s statement restricting Sri Lankans to participate in the IPL matches contravenes the spirit in which the Government of India grants visas to foreigners. Either the government must specifically state in their visas that entry to specific states is not granted or call out Jayalalithaa’s attempts to intervene in a matter that is outside her constitutionally defined scope.

Italian marines case: Italy guilty of perjury in India’s Supreme Court?

This morning India woke up to the news that Italy had shown the middle finger to India as well as the international legal fraternity in connection with the case of Italian marines’ shooting of two Indian fishermen in the Arabian sea last February. Italy’s Foreign Ministry on Monday said that the two marines accused of shooting dead the two Indian fishermen would not be sent back to India as India’s decision to try the accused marines in India violated the two accused’s rights, particularly on the principle of immunity for foreign state actors.

Earlier on Feb 22, the Supreme Court of India had permitted the two Italian anti piracy marines, accused of killing two Indian fishermen off India’s coast after mistaking them for pirates, to go back to Italy for four weeks to vote in that country’s elections and meet their families.

While debate rages on if Italy has violated the reciprocal spirit of international justice, there are important questions that need to be asked regarding the accused’s intentions when they applied to the Supreme Court on Feb 22  to go home to vote in Italy’s general elections on 24-25 February. As per Economic Times, their application said that if they were permitted to travel to Italy, they would be able to “exercise their right to vote in their home town” for the general elections that would take place Feb 24-25.”

But the real reason might be something other than what was stated in their application. A close study of the notification for Italy’s general elections for citizens living abroad reveals the following two points that must be noted regarding the two options the marines had in order to vote in Italy’s elections:

“Voters living abroad and certain specific categories of Italian nationals temporarily abroad for reasons of service or international missions can vote by post in these elections.

Italian citizens wishing to vote in Italy must inform their consulate in writing. The notification MUST REACH THE CONSULATE no later than 3 JANUARY 2013 (10th day following the day the election was called).”

Given the two points as regards their two options (vote by post or vote in person in Italy), a couple of questions arise as regards their eventual choice to vote in person in Italy:

a) Did the Italian marines inform their consulate in India before 3 January 2013 (the cut off date to inform the consulate whether they will be voting in Italy or via postal ballots) that they would vote in Italy during the elections on 24-25 February and thus forgoing their option of a postal ballot?

b) If they did so, thus forgoing their postal vote, how could they be sure that their application to the Supreme Court would be approved (when the hearing itself was scheduled on 22 February; much after the cut off date of 3 Jan to inform the consulate of their decision to vote in person in Italy) and thus allowing them to travel to Italy to vote in the 24-25 Feb elections?

An answer to these two questions will determine whether Italy had already made up its mind about not sending the marines back well before 3 Jan 2013 when the marines were in Italy celebrating Christmas with their families till 4 Jan 2013 when they returned to India. Also, the answer to these questions will show if Italy had perjured in the highest court of India about the real reason of the marines’ application to go to Italy to vote in the elections; especially so since the option to vote in Italy was non-existent as on the date when the accused filed their application to the SC as the cut off date (3 Jan) to inform the consulate whether they would be voting by post or in person in Italy was already over.