The day after Diwali began on a strange note in Bhopal when eight alleged terrorists belonging to the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) broke out of the high-security central jail in the city. The men in question also killed a head constable. Media reports claimed that three of these were repeat offenders who had earlier tried to break out of another jail three years ago in 2013.
Hours later the eight men were killed in an encounter by the Anti-Terrorism Squad. However, some videos that surfaced from the site of the encounter raised serious concerns regarding the authenticity of the entire operation. India Today TV aired one such video that was clearly labelled as “unverified”.
On the other hand, a section of the news media was quick to label the deceased as “terrorists” despite the men being under-trial. Headlines of various news reports published on several websites including The Times of India and Zee News identified the accused as “terrorists”.
Terming media’s usage of such terminology as unfortunate, Siddharth Varadarajan argued that the media often treated accused persons as guilty. “An under-trial or a man accused of terrorism will almost invariably be called a terrorist in media narrative or media reporting particularly once they have been killed because there is nobody who will come back and sue you. I think this is one of the careless and unethical aspects of the Indian media,” said Varadarajan, Founding Editor of The Wire.
The former editor of The Hindu held the overall coverage of the encounter to be quite good as some television channels helped question the police’s theory on the basis of certain videos. “I would say the media coverage of this has been fair to the extent to which the media has allowed questions to be asked of the police version. It is something which normally has not been happening,” he added.
Varadarajan felt that the media had acted very differently in the encounter case of Ishrat Jahan through its “motivated” and “shameless” coverage. He stated that “large sections of the media have been party to the government’s attempt to cover up the killing of Ishrat Jahan” by indulging in irrelevant detailing concerning the first and second affidavit.
“In this particular case, the media has done well by asking the right questions. Of course, the labels it has attached are all wrong,” he said.