06 September 2010

Such journalists should be exposed, not honoured

I have written to the jury which gave the Indian News Broadcasting Award for News Reporter of the Year 2010, Hindi, to Neeta Sharma of NDTV India, protesting their choice.

Neeta Sharma was the reporter who wrote a false story in the Hindustan Times in 2002 calling Iftikhar Gilani, a senior and respected journalist who is the Delhi bureau chief of Kashmir Times, an ISI agent. Her story, which was based on a plant by police and intelligence officials, contributed to Iftikhar's incarceration and caused him no end of trouble, especially with violent inmates and jailors at Tihar. As a reporter, she has never apologised for her story. Until she does so, I consider her a blight on my profession. I am sickened by the thought that such a person could have received an award for her so-called reporting. My letter -- and all the details of that sordid incident -- is appended below ...

Dear Vinod [Mehta] and other jury members,

You were part of a jury that recently gave Neeta Sharma of NDTV India a 'reporter of the year' award.

While I am not familiar with her work on TV, her earlier work as a reporter for HT was reprehensible. Indeed, I have no hesitation in saying she was a blot on the profession of journalism. And that until she makes amends by tendering an unqualified apology to the biggest victim of her unprofessionalism -- Iftikhar Gilani -- she ought to be considered beyond the pale.

While at the HT, she was an accomplice in the police attempt to frame Iftikhar Gilani, the respected bureau chief of Kashmir Times on false charges. I have recorded the issue and circumstances of Neeta Sharma's unethical behaviour in my Introduction to Gilani's book, My Days in Prison, which was published by Penguin in 2005:

Since the DGMI ‘opinion’ made no reference to the published document, Iftikhar’s counsel tried in vain to have the courts take cognisance of it and demand that the military provide a second opinion expeditiously. Here, the case hit its third and fourth roadblocks, which was the timorousness of the lower judiciary and media in matters ostensibly relating to national security and official secrets. What was surprising was that despite the alacrity of the courts in filing contempt proceedings against those who try to manipulate the course of justice by misreporting or misrepresenting what transpires during a hearing, the concerned judge took no action against a wholly fabricated news report which appeared in a national daily the first time Iftikhar was produced in court: “In the course of hearing on Monday, Geelani (sic) reportedly said he had been passing on classified information about the movement of Indian troops to the ISI. When chief metropolitan magistrate Sangita Sehgal asked him if she should record this in his statement, Geelani nodded in assent.”[1] The news was false and amounted to contempt of court. Yet, no action was taken.

As for the gullible crime reporter who was fed this story by the Delhi Police Special Cell, no apology was ever made. I happened to be introduced to the reporter in question at a colleague’s wedding in 2004 and when I said I had a bone to pick with her because of the hit-job she had done on Iftikhar Gilani, she said, “I don’t know any Iftikhar Gilani”. I was angry but decided to give her a bit of advice: “The police officials who used you to plant that story have escaped with their reputations intact. But what you did will remain a blot on your reputation as a journalist so long as you don’t apologise to Iftikhar”.

Neeta Sharma’s story was important to the police because it appeared just at a time when a petition drafted by Aunohita Mojumdar and other journalists and friends of Iftikhar was gathering steam. A brief report about the campaign had appeared in The Times of India on June 10 and the police and IB quickly realised the need to nip any journalistic acts of solidarity in the bud. Editors could be leaned upon (and they were) but there was no better deterrent to the campaigning spirit than a concocted confession by Iftikhar that he had been an ISI agent all along. Soon, the floodgates opened and any number of malicious reports appeared across much of the Indian media accusing Iftikhar of being a traitor and militant, smuggler and jihadi, a sex fiend and “spy claiming the privileges of a newsman”, in the libellous words of the Bharatiya Janata Party MP and one-time journalist, Balbir K. Punj.[2]

[1] Neeta Sharma, ‘Iftikar Geelani admits ISI links’, Hindustan Times, June 11, 2002 [2] Balbir K. Punj, ‘Dissimulation in words and in images’, Outlook, July 8, 2002
http://svaradarajan.blogspot.com/2005/02/my-foreword-to-iftikhar-gilanis-my.html
Iftikhar has also spoken about this in interviews and elsewhere:

But what really affected my family and me most was a was a four column story printed in Hindustan Times on June 11 saying I was an ISI agent. It was a by-lined report by Neeta Sharma. Surprisingly, the reporter quoted me saying that I had confessed to being an agent, and to my illegal activities when I was appearing at one of the hearings at the sessions court. Later a police official asked me whether I had spoken to any reporter which I had denied.

This really hurt my family and me. The next day my wife went to speak and complain to Shobhana Bhartia, Executive and Editorial Director of HT and told her all this was untrue and they should print an apology which the paper did.
http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/searchdetail.php?sid=651&bg=1
Elsewhere, he has written about the same incident:

The mother of all mischievous reports about me was by a Neeta Sharma, crime
reporter of the Hindustan Times and now with the NDTV. She reported that I had admitted before the court to having ISI links. The report said, “Iftikhar Gilani, 35 year old son-in-law of Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, is believed to have admitted in a city court that he was an agent of Pakistan’s spy agency”. She went even further, and reported that Syed Ali Geelani was so happy with Iftikhar’s working with the ISI that he gave his daughter to him in marriage. What a ridiculous report! Thanks to friends in the Hindustan Times, and its Deputy Chairperson Shobna Bharatiya, the paper corrected itself.
http://www.sarai.net/publications/readers/04-crisis-media/29iftikar.pdf
Not surprisingly, Iftikhar has criticised the decision to give Neeta Sharma an award despite her failure to acknowledge her mistake and her failure to apologise for the unsavoury incident:
http://beta.milligazette.com/news/090-dubious-journalist-gets-award

As a colleague and friend of Iftikhar, and as the author of the Introduction to his book, I have no hesitation in also expressing my unhappiness at her selection.

I hope that even at this late stage, you as jury members can either find a way to withdraw this award or at least shame Neeta Sharma into acknowledging that the basic code of a good reporter involves respecting the truth and having the decency to say sorry when you make a grave mistake.

Yours sincerely,

Siddharth Varadarajan

25 comments:

Subir Ghosh said...

A broader question here, Siddharth.Do you think journalists should at all accept awards. Be it from a regime (in the form of the Padma series), or from industry (all these awards that are as silly as those innumerable TV awards)? Independent foundations, of course, are different.

Yogendra K said...

unfortunate. I would looking forward to what the jury does.

powerslave said...

Siddharth sir definition of 'right/wrong' only when applied 'consistently' ensures that 'ethics','morality' and other moral high talk like 'justice' are upheld.

It is nice to see a journalist coming forward and comment on a mistake made by a fellow journalist, fair enough, but from a larger perspective what is your motive behind highlighting this particular issue ?

Is the jury which gave Indian News Broadcasting Award a GoI entity ?

I ask this because likes of Teesta Steelvad have been awarded Padma Shree for coverage of Godhara while the SC rapped the former on knuckles for falsifying stories and forcing words into witness's mouth.

I would like to know your stand on that issue as well , more importantly when you talk of 'ethics' or 'morals' do you apply them consistently for all the cases or you chose Neeta Sharma's case because it is in line with your ideology and has got little to do with 'morals' or 'ethics' as such.

Anonymous said...

well said; interested to know the jury's Neeta's responses.

-Ravi

Oshiya A New Woman said...

Thanks, Siddharth.

You are challenging the dirty and idiotic games of a media-mafia, bravely and truthfully.

We, the members of 'Maitreya Mystic Himalayas' Salute You.

Nazia Mallick said...

Let me congratulate you Mr. Varadarajan for this excellent piece. Thank you so much for posting it.
I have been a staunch follower of your writing and journalistic trails. Well, trying to praise you would be akin to lighting a candle before the sun (pardon me for the lame phrase) and after reading this post I just thought of reaching out with my thoughts about how offensively flawed the entire system is in our country.
All over the world the law rests on the presumption that a person is innocent until proven otherwise.
In this country an arrest by the police is taken as a sign of guilt. Mr. Iftikhar Gilani was one of those victims in this dangerous violation.

For the likes of Neeta Sharma I would like to quote a speech by: -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
From the sermon "But, If Not" delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on November 5, 1967.

"....One day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause.
And you refuse to do it because you are afraid.
You refuse to do it because you want to live longer.
You're afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you're afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand.

Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety.
And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.
You died when you refused to stand up for right.
You died when you refused to stand up for truth.
You died when you refused to stand up for justice."

Anonymous said...

So what is the criteria? Because Supreme court did not convict Gilani, the journalist should 'apologise'. Fine let us keep that as the gold standard. Let us see how our holier than thou Stalinist yellow journals and journalists measure up to that exacting standard...

What happens to those that launched a brutal campaign of lies and denigration against Baba Ramdev? Do they apologise for that? Or did I miss the news that Ramdev has been convicted of adulteration and other crimes?

What happens if one day Sankaracharya is pronounced not guilty? Do the third rate gutter yellow journals and some evangelical 'journalists' that turned the episode into a broader progom against Hindus and willingly spread lies propagated by a biased police apologise and decline awards? Hasnt the Supreme court already passed caustic remarks on this topic?

What about periodic campaigns against 'Hindutva terror' - if there is no conviction or even prosecution, will Stalinists and their yellow puppets apologise?

It has become a habit with our lefties to pretend that they are purer than fresh snow and start insulting others...they should check their own track record, bias, false propaganda, pro-Stalinist, pro-Beijing nonsense and yellow journalism.

Lesley E said...

Dear Vinod,

As a journalist increasingly depressed by the falling standards and practices in print media, practices that Outlook itself has uncovered, and as a journalist who has been fortunate to be part of an ethical media organisation run to your high standards, I urge you to speak up against this reporter so erroneously awarded, so that people can continue to keep faith in our press.

Lesley A. Esteves,
Managing Editor,
Outlook Lounge

Siddharth Varadarajan said...

@Subir The best awards are those that one's peer group bestows; besides that, everything else tends to pale, IMHO. But to each his own.

@Yogendra Some of the jury members I know got back to say the way it worked is that they were made to judge different categories in pairs and that none of the adjudicated the Neeta Sharma award. That said, they were disturbed with the questions being asked.


@Anonymous I think you are confusing Iftikhar Gilani and S.A.R. Geelani, whos case went to the Supreme Court. Neeta Sharma was not writing stuff about a man who eventually turned out to be innocent. She knowingly planted false information at a crucial stage in Iftikhar's detention. You mentioned the case against the Shankaracharya. The correct comparison would be to see if a journalist had published a story saying Jayendra Saraswati has confessed to murder etc etc. when he had done nothing of the sort.

Anonymous said...

Fly a kite, Sid. And do reply.

Anonymous said...

So in your lexicon, planting stories about JS trying to escape by helicopter to Nepal, non-existing bank accounts from which cash was paid out to do the killing, and so many other unprintable (in non-yellow context) stories ok as long as the victim is target of hate propaganda by leftists?

Anonymous said...

Think of a change from the root itself economically rather getting defocused by this type of incedents.

arif hussain sarmast said...

Self restraint s important :-):-) reporters should apply it before reporting

Anonymous said...

Firstly, thanks. Secondly, isn't there a disciplinary mechanism within the Indian press? I can well understand why Mr. Gilani did not opt to pursue a case but it is disturbing that Ms. Sharma was able to find a job even after a news item under her byline was retracted.

Siddharth Varadarajan said...

@anon1 No its not OK for someone to concoct stories about the Sankaracharya either.

@anon2 There is no disciplinary mechanism within the Indian press. I know the Editors Guild had raised some queries about Neeta Sharma's reporting but she refused to provide any explanation.

Anonymous said...

@powerslave
"I ask this because likes of Teesta Steelvad have been awarded Padma Shree for coverage of Godhara while the SC rapped the former on knuckles for falsifying stories and forcing words into witness's mouth."

A classic example of how a lie when repeated 1000 times becomes the truth. The Supreme Court *did not* criticize Setalvad.

What Times of India reporter Mahapatra of TOI reported that SIT head Raghavan had told the supreme court about Setalvad cooking up statements and tutoring witnesses.

But as was pointed out by several NGOs in a rebuttal to Mahapatra, nobody from the SIT, certainly not Raghavan, was at the SC on April 13 to tell the SC anything.


Even Pratap Bhanu Mehta of CPR, (by no means a lefty!) who initially relied on Mahapatra's report, later came out with an apology.

So who is spreading falsities here?

Anonymous said...

SV, many thanks for confirming you are against lies and negative propaganda in the name of journalism, whoever be the victim. I do hope you will raise similar objections when such characters get nominated for any award and this will not be an isolated incident..

Anonymous said...

but she was awarded for uncovering the truth about sohrabuddin fake encounter...she took on a state and its police and exposed the conspiracy. shouldn't she be lauded for that? i don't know whether Geelani was innocent or not...but just beacuse a person is not found guilty doesn't mean he was not actually guilty...nd m telling that in general...and definitely the courts will not consider a news report for making decisions.

powerslave said...

@Anonymous

quote "The Supreme Court *did not* criticize Setalvad."

Here from 'Telegraph'

http://tinyurl.com/36f2vky


CJI K.G Balakrishnan

1. “It is shameful… not in good taste,”

2. “Who is this Teesta Setalvad? Is she a spokesperson of these persons or petitioners?” the bench asked. “If she is representing these persons (those seeking bail), we do not want to hear them.”

Considering how much 'politically correct' and careful CJI is with his words above are serious observations.

And coming to 'FALSITIES' what is the truth behind the 'Kauser Bano' episode ?

Who is correct the journalists who painted graphic stories or the doctor who did the post-mortem ?

Arjun said...

@Siddharth,
I totally agree with your viewpoint, I think the Journalist should have verified the story & confirmed the truth behind it before publishing it.
And when we see this in light of Nazia Mallick's comment on your story,
"In this country an arrest by the police is taken as a sign of guilt."
Journalists as well as media needs to apply self constraint before publishing stories of this nature that may create a permanent impact of the victims life.

Suresh said...

Ok, it is now nearly two weeks since your original post. Can one ask if there has been any response from (i) the concerned journalist, Neeta Sharma; (ii) her employer NDTV; (iii) the jury members who awarded her the prize; (iv) any other member of the press corps?

I suspect the answer to all four questions is "No." One feels despair: what is the point of raising such an important issue if it is simply going to be forgotten a few weeks down the line?

fayaz said...

it is really a brave and courageous stand that you as a person from the journalist community are taking...and more importantly when it is not easy to take such a stand...
however the most important in all this was the difficult times when iftikar was implicated and when he had all the 'apparent wrong' tags associated with him.
..a kashmiri, son-in-law of Syed Ali Geelani, writing for pakistani newspapers under the nose of BJP led NDA government...

one has to understand the gravity of the context to fully weigh Siddarth's stand..

its really a solace to find people like you in the journalistic profession... i have my all the respect for Mr. Siddharth Vardharajan..


P.S. i just happen to read ur forwarded book by Iftikar Geelani 'My Prison Days' these days.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece, SV. Awards are humbug anyway, and i don't care about them anyway, be in Bharat Ratna or PVC.

I recognise a person when he does good work and I have read the full story on him. I'm suspicious when someone says "hi, meet mr.x padma bhushan etc.". I know S. Tendulkar and I don't need a padma award to recognise him.

I admire your work, you dig investigative stuff like a duck in water. However, I wish your pieces were laced with a bit of sarcasm. You just don't hold a candle to P. Sainath in terms of impact. You write like Chomsky. I consider lack of humour in opinion pieces a defect.

Anonymous said...

One simple question to this learned writer; have you read the judgment of any one of the three judges' in totality before reaching this conclusion? You could not have because you had to get to the print....right? Awesome for some one who claims to be a journalist that too who is supposed to research and write!

Anonymous said...

Oh really? What about you commenting on Ayodhya judgment within 2 hours as if you read through the judgments exceeding 10000 pages and made an informed analysis. You just wanted to get something out in print before every one else right? Did you for a moment pause to think what amount of work went in to pronouncing such a judgment on an issue which to say the least is complex! Just because you do not agree with a judgment, you reason that it is not law but faith. Well people who read such half baked and prejudiced reporting will lose faith in factual reporting. So be a kettle and go ahead calling pots black.