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Guest Column Retrofit: Intelligence agency stenography is a dangerous game to play

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Guest Column Retrofit: Intelligence agency stenography is a dangerous game to play

Intelligence agency stenography is a very dangerous game to play, particularly if you are in the media business, more so in print. In the blink-of-an-eye electronic medium, one can afford the odd slip up. Simply because it is transient medium. You can run, but you can’t hide in print, particularly if you are writing a big ‘plantation’ story, which is fraught with risk. If lightning strikes more than once in the same place, then there is cause for suspicion and concern. When the Hindustan Times finally launched its much vaunted edition in Mumbai sometime in July 2005, its big ticket story revolved around Salman Khan’s telephonic conversations with an underworld gangster. The transcripts caused a sensation and as always our very ‘reliable’ telly channels went into overdrive. HT sat pretty and preened. Job well done is what it told itself. Operation launch was a gangbuster success. But joy gave way to tumult and then consternation as questions were posed on the veracity of the tapes.

Finally, the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Chandigarh slam dunked the tapes, saying that they were fake, nay doctored. The HT report led to a major fracas with ‘bad boy’ Salman Khan being targeted by media and other pressure groups. Salman’s father, the much respected Salim Khan, had after the exoneration said, “They called him ‘desh drohi’ and asked him to go back to Pakistan. He was not even allowed to step out of his house by the protestors. Who is going to make up for the losses – mental, physical and emotional – to us?” Good question, who will? Media hypes an event, someone else suffers. There is absolutely no justification in this sort of slander, a trial by media is probably the worst thing to happen to anybody. Salman Khan may not have too many friends in media because of his boorish image and errant ways, but at the end of day, he is a popular public figure with a fan following. Sometimes I wonder whether it is a carefully cultivated one? But nobody has the right to target an individual wrongly. When the last vestiges of HT’s blockbuster revelations were torn apart by FSL, the least that HT could have done was tender an apology. Anyway that is all in the past.

The moot point is that HT had egg on its face. Three years later, HT has managed to pull off a similar stunt. But let The Hindu’s Siddharth Vardarajan take up the narrative. As he has pointed out in his column on The Hoot, “A 26/11 scoop sourced from Indian officials is contradicted by Pakistan’s Interior Minister – the pursuit of an exclusive is exhilarating, but every reporter needs to be aware of the motivation of the source and the larger background. Otherwise, he or she risks being taken for a ride, or missing the real story.” HT on April 15 carried an exclusive lead – “On eve of trial, 26/11 breakthrough in Europe”. The HT story detailed how a global 60-day manhunt by Indian intelligence agencies led to a Pak Lashkar operative’s arrest in Europe. Shahid Jamil Riaz was detained in a European country and was to be brought back for trial to India, claimed the story.

Now Vardarajan, a strategic affairs analyst himself says that when he read the story, he was besieged by a feeling of déjà vu, realising that he had read the name Shahid Jamil Riaz earlier. As it turned out, Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik had announced Riaz’s arrest at a press conference on April 13. Two days before HT front paged its exclusive. Malik said that Riaz was arrested in Karachi. The Daily Times in Pakistan mentioned on April 15 that Riaz was from Bahawalpur and that a Rawalpindi court had sent him to 14 days’ remand on April 14.

Confusion confounded. I don’t trust the Pakistanis one bit. Vardarajan as a strategic affairs analyst himself must have interfaced with the same intelligence agencies and hence, familiar with their ways and tactics. So, if he is asking these questions, there must be an element of credibility attached to it. In any case, I must add that within the Indian intel community, there are two factions – RAW and IB. Journos, too, have been cultivated by either IB or RAW, and not by both. But that is an aside. Let us come back to more pressing matters. Could Riaz have been arrested in Europe if he was arrested in Pakistan by Pakistani anti-terrorism units? Vardarajan asks many other pertinent questions during the course of his story in The Hoot, none more than the summation. He says, “The story is a good example of poor anchoring, a standard malaise in India when an ‘exclusive’ arrives on the desk. Since most exclusives take the form of a leak to a lucky reporter, the reporter herself cannot be blamed for not having the big picture. Ideally, such a story needs to be carefully parsed and examined by the editors who deal with the bigger picture/subjects involved.”

Ironically, the story had a Mumbai dateline, just as the Salman Khan story four years ago. Which brings us back to the fundamental issue of the gatekeepers in charge of clearing, polishing and verifying the story. Did they have the wherewithal to check with intel outfits on the real facts. That is the bigger travesty. For Vardarajan also asks another vital question – that if Riaz is in Pakistani custody, how can the MHA bring him back to India within a week. He writes, “If MHA says he is going to be sent across, that ought to have been the most important angle of the story, not his arrest, which was already old news.” Given that Pakistan’s stated stance is not extradite anyone on its soil, that is.

A note to the editors then, who allowed the story in and gave it the necessary display? Did anybody take the rap for it? For this is not an ordinary plant, it has national and geo-political ramifications, given that India is slapbang in the middle of an election where terror is a focus area. It is important because the US is applying pressure on both Pakistan and India to settle its differences. It is important because Pakistan is not responding to India’s charges over 26/11. If in this atmosphere, a flawed story surfaces with a prominent display in a national daily, then questions need to be asked of the editorial leadership. One can argue that stories are always motivated, every writer is playing an angle, but when it comes to issues of national importance, dictation of this type is irksome, no worrisome. Who let the story in, who checked the facts therein? Oh I could go on…

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of


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