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.

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Protecting India’s non VVIP lives and transportation infrastructure

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The city of Mumbai has been the target of most number of terrorist attacks in India. Since 1993, 14 incidents of terrorist attacks in Mumbai have claimed 738 lives and injured 2393 people. Almost 40% of the lives lost (280 deaths) were in train & train station related terrorist attacks, where terrorists either planted bombs in Mumbai’s suburban railway trains (also called as local trains) & near train stations (twice in December 2002, January 2003, March 2003, July 2006) or like 26/11 massacred people at Mumbai’s CST train station using a Fedayeen unit. One would expect that considering these incidents, the security routine at the train stations and areas around it would be the strictest given how easily the terrorists have managed to exploit the loose security routine at and around train stations multiple times. But sadly that isn’t the case at all as I narrate below using my experience of traveling in local trains and intercity trains on my recent visit to Mumbai. After my Mumbai visit, I now strongly believe that those who are in charge of ensuring a secure Mumbai (and India) are a bunch of nincompoops. These hare brained worthies have no idea of how to ensure security for those who use Mumbai’s public transportation infrastructure especially its local train network that is used by 7 million people daily .

One would think that after July 2006 and 26/11; there would be some serious security check routine in Mumbai’s local train network. Traveling in a local train for the first time after I left Mumbai in 2005/6, I was shocked to find that there was absolutely no security check routine at all at the train stations!! Furthermore, my experience of intercity train travel from Mumbai Central to New Delhi left me in no doubt that when it comes to ensuring security for the ordinary train using passenger, our security experts expose their incompetence and their insensitivity to protecting ordinary lives unashamedly. They would not bat an eyelid before spending enormous sums of money for purchasing helicopters for VVIPs but will happily let ordinary people expose themselves to serious risks and terrorist threats in the course of using India’s overcrowded and substandard transportation networks.

Let me corroborate my strong words by narrating in detail the abovementioned intercity travel experience. A couple of days ago, I had a couple of my friends drop me off with my luggage at the entrance of the Mumbai Central station while they went and parked the car. Since I had two unwieldy packages in carton boxes (comprising of two Bose speakers and a Yamaha receiver courtesy a generous gift by another friend) and a trolley bag, I fixed up with a porter by the time my friends returned.  The porter put the luggage onto a trolley and wheeled it in. We walked past a waiting area cum restaurant area in front of the platforms. And then as we walked onto our platform the porter got stopped by a policeman and is asked about the owner of the luggage. When the porter points to me, these are the questions that the police asked me:

What’s in these two cartons?

What is your name?

Can you open your trolley bag? (I did) What’s in the newspaper covered box inside the trolley bag? (I answer bone china tea set and the policeman asks me to close the bag while asking me the following questions)

Where are you from?

Where are you going?

After this the policeman let us carry on. Now, these random questions the policeman asked of me along with the cursory check into my trolley bag hardly makes for a strict security check. There is no orderly system of baggage screening to check for explosives or suspicious looking packages before one gets into the station like is done at airports and at Delhi’s metro stations. Apparently in Mumbai, those responsible for passenger security place their faith in the a) policeman’s skills of somehow picking out a terrorist in a huge crowd and b) his interrogation skills which will most expected to cause the suspect to  spill the beans or caught red handed while handling the deadly explosives!!

After this, we made our way to the platform and I board it when the train arrives. After the porter placed the luggage in the compartment, I went out to hang out with my friends since there was still almost half an hour before the train departed. In the meantime, a policeman with a police dog came over and asked me if one of cartons (containing the speaker) was mine and directed me to come inside the compartment so that he could have a look at it. When inside the compartment, he asked me to take the carton down from the side upper seat where it was kept and asked me what it contained. I told him that it contained speakers. He then asked me to open the package to which I said that I would bring the package down for him to examine it but would not open it since it has been packaged for transportation. Then the policeman commanded his dog “Find” to sniff for suspicious contents and then tapped a little too violently at the side of the speaker with a staff that he was holding in his right hand. I exclaimed that the package contained speakers in them that are breakable and he needn’t have tapped them. He then gave me the advice to stay with my luggage and left.

Maybe people in Mumbai find comfort in seeing a policeman with a sniffer dog jump up and down on trains to hunt down the evil terrorist. I, on the other hand, shudder to think of the consequences that might entail if such unsystematic and incomplete security routines are considered adequate. A security routine that disregards a screening procedure on entry and instead relies on a policeman with a police dog to sniff out suspicious packages randomly long after they have been put away for travel is anything but systematic and complete. I am no security expert, but in my view the cause of security would be best served if the so called security experts at the top of the ladder would have put in place a security procedure that involved appropriate screening procedures using metal detectors, explosive detection/X-ray machines along with a sniffer dog placed right after these two at the entrance itself so as to ensure that no suspicious packages would get through in the first place! A simple screening procedure would perhaps involve the dog sniffing at the packages one after the other while the travelers come in a straight line. I bet my bottom dollar that my suggested security routine would thwart terrorists’ attempts in planting explosives at a higher rate than the current official security checks loosely in place.

The local train users in Mumbai must fear for their lives; better still they should agitate against the powers that may be to put in place tight security procedures.