On 21 March 2013, the Supreme Court gave its judgments in 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.