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Sunday, August 30, 2015

From Aarushi To Sheena : Trial Or Lynching By Media?

Image Courtesy: Youtube 
So the Indian media has latched on to the ghastly and extremely tragic tale of the murder of Sheena Bora with a zeal that falls somewhere between responsible journalism and savagery of a lynch mob screaming for punishment at a medieval trial. The latter part is of course disguised in more civil and self-righteous statements and opinions but criticism by various eminent and less eminent members of citizenry now and then rip off parts of this disguise.  But then there always two sides to a story. It is true that without media coverage, it is highly unlikely that investigation into this crime would been as prompt but the way it has been handled by the media can be described in milder terms as cheap and immature. However some television channels, especially (but not exclusively), vernacular news channels have indeed removed all stops and gone all facetious, dishing out murky details on an hourly basis. After all, this sordid story has more ingredients than a typical Bollywood potboiler and prime time soap operas combined. A mysterious murder in a rich and influential family, a web of lies and deceit and purported evidence of sleazy activities are things these news channels would give anything for and in Sheena Bora murder case, they only have to sacrifice a little journalistic ethics.

Such coverage harms both individuals and society in general in at least two ways.  By sensationalizing a gruesome case of murder of a young, innocent person, they turn it into a reality show, along with background score from popular Bollywood flicks, dramatic and graphical representation interspersed with clich├ęd and tacky lines that transports audience from being viewers of news reports to that of a suspense thriller, entirely fictitious (since they haven't been indicted by the court yet) but presented as the indisputable truth. In the process a grave injustice is being done to the young woman who was brutally killed as intimate details of her life are thrown into the public domain. The second question is, can such media trials have any bearings whatsoever on real trial that is to follow? Of course, the courts of law are not influenced by media reports but they do rely upon the charges and evidences that the prosecution and the police. Are the police and prosecution insulated from media reports, public opinion and prejudice?

The Aarushi-Hemraj double murder case is a good example of how investigation can be influenced by media narrative and personal opinion of the investigators over facts. Although the parents of Aarushi Talwar have already been convicted by the trial court, their appeal is pending but importantly a large number of people, including this writer, continue to believe that justice for Aarushi has not been delivered. A detailed inquiry into the even "known"  facts suggest that the murder case may not have been an open and shut case. There are several discrepancies in the prosecution case starting with the fact that no deception was found in the Talwar couple's lie-detector tests while two the three outsiders initially investigated failed the tests. As a matter of fact, Krishna the assistant in Rajesh Talwar's clinic and the  domestic help of family friends of Talwars, during narcoanalysis tests confessed on not only being present in the house but also being involved in the crime. Ignoring evidences such as presence of beer and wine bottles in teetotaller Hemraj's  room, ambiguity over murder weapon and the pillow with blood stains found in Krishna's room which prosecution never produced as evidence questions the investigation's efficiency and also motive. The CBI at first pointed fingers at these three accused in a press conference much to the protest of media and a section of public who had alreaded judged that the parents were indeed the real killers. Then the CBI had already filed  closure report acquittal Ramesh and Nupur Talwar and reopening of case that led to their conviction was done at their behest. Now why would any sane person want reopening of the case if they had something to hide?

Understandably, after the high decibel media campaign if the Talwars had been exonerated and the other three persons convicted, it would have been construed that the rich and affluent couple escaped punishment because of their clout while the less privileged but innocent people were instead framed. Of course, "honour killing" in high society (not really as high as the Mukherjeas) along with salacious insinuations made a much better media narrative and perhaps more acceptable one but what if it wasn't really true. A new CBI team was constituted which followed the lead laid own by popular narrative, the Talwars were convicted based on circumstantial evidence. If one were to presume the innocence of the couple for a moment (back then media didn't stick to the dictum "innocent until proven guilty")  ,can one really understand the pain a father and a mother have to go through after not only losing their only daughter, having aspersions cast upon her moral character and also being punished for her murder ?  However, it is not just the investigating agencies and media that can be held responsible, the audience and the society it is part of, cannot wash its hand off. Even the post I made in June, 2008 was more of a critique on the way media was indulging in sensationalism and salacity but not on how the narrative was being shaped that would in time become strong enough to force investigative agencies conform to it.

Now as the  Sheena Bora murder case plays out on our televisions, it would indeed be difficult to avoid being drawn into its latest twists and turns and exclusive reports but it might do well too remember that unlike Rajesh Talwar, Indrani Mukherjea seems a lot more of a ruthless social climber who first denied existence of her two children to the world and then went on to kill one of them for some reason. But it still remains an allegation and does not imply that the media has the right to prejudge the case and expect the prosecution to follow suit or face the heat on television talk shows. Media does have right and in fact duty to pursue the case to its logical end and report the developments to the public. The very definition of trial by media states that because of  the strong public opinion, a fair trail becomes difficult  and even when acquitted, the accused have to live with the stigma attached to them for the rest of their lives. The media would do well to refrain from being hasty and indicting the accused before the court has determined the guilt and simply report police findings instead of taking up the role of the investigating agencies.

Note: I have not read author/journalist Avirook Sen's book "Aarushi" yet, the assertions made above are partly sourced from Wikipedia and Tehelka.com article, links to which are included inline. 

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