16 April 2009

Less dictation, more questions

A 26/11 scoop sourced from Indian officials is contradicted by a Pakistani news report, quoting the country’s interior minister. Was the Hindustan Times taken for a ride? [Cross-posted on The Hoot]

16 April 2009
The Hoot

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 she or he risks being taken for a ride, or missing the real story. The Hindustan Times of April 15 carried an exclusive lead 'On eve of trial, 26/11 breakthrough in Europe'. The story tells us:

60-day global covert operation by Indian intelligence agencies leads to Pak Lashkar operative's detention in Europe.

A secret, determined global effort by India to track down those involved in the
November 26 Mumbai attacks has borne fruit. Shahid Jamil Riaz, a key
Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) operative who handled financial transactions and was
among the core group of 26/11 conspirators, has been detained in a European
country, top officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs have told Hindustan

Riaz is likely to be brought to India by the end of this week, where he will be officially charged and arrested.

The breakthrough, indicating the global reach of the conspirators, comes on a day
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India had given "enough evidence" to

Riaz's arrest will further strengthen the 26/11 case trial, which begins in a special court inside the high-security Arthur Road jail on Wednesday. The arrest will also validate India's stand that Pakistani nationals were involved in the attack, which left 173 dead and more than 300 injured.
I had a sense of deja vu when I read the story in the morning and asked myself where I had come across the name of Riaz before. It turns out his name, or more precisely, his arrest, was announced by Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister, at a press conference on April 13. The Hindu of 14 April quotes him as saying: "He said Pakistan's probe into the Mumbai incident was continuing and another suspect, Shahid Jamil Riaz, had been arrested for facilitating monetary transactions in Karachi and planning the attacks.

Mr. Malik went on to say Riaz had been arrested from Karachi and was in Pakistani custody. The Daily Times of April 15 notes that he is from Bahawalpur and that the Anti-Terrorism Court II of Rawalpindi sent him to 14 days remand on April 14.

Even if the Ministry of Home Affairs in India wants to boast about "their" catch, the HT should have at least mentioned Rehman Malik's statement. Better still, the reporter ought to have asked the Home Ministry 'sleuths' what the full story was.

For example, was Riaz arrested in Europe or in Pakistan, as Malik claimed?

If Riaz is in Pakistani custody, how could the MHA say he was going to be brought to India within the week? Until now, Pakistan has refused to extradite any of its citizens to India. So if the 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.

It could well be that Riaz's arrest is the result not of Indian sleuthing and pressure but Pakistani sleuthing. If that is so, it might suggest that something more complex is underway on the Pakistan side than most Indians are aware of.

Or it could be that Malik was lying, though that seems unlikely since Riaz has been remanded to custody.

Either way, the story was a wasted opportunity to ask a bunch of interesting questions to normally secretive officials who knew something more. All in pursuit of that elusive exclusive...

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 reporters/editors who deal with the bigger picture subjects involved.


kuldeep singh chauhan said...

a good example of media sensationalism and trp wars among media houses...cut copy paste taught in journalism schools is now evident on the field also where the novices do not bother to do groundwork and verify facts before jumping the gun prematurely...

Anonymous said...

Hindustan Times editor YASHWANT RAO has given explanation on his BLOG


Everyone was a little tired of Pakistan. Our foreign editor left for home every day praying for a quiet night. But he was back on his BlackBerry within 30 minutes or thereabouts.

One more suicide bombing, one more statement from their home office or one more twist in the Swat story. It just didn’t stop. Tuesday night our Mumbai crime reporters came back with some more.Indian intelligence agencies helped a European country - you will know shortly which one - arrest a man suspected of enabling 26/11 with payments abroad and for buying an engine for the dingy used by the attackers.

The story had huge implications. India could now piece together parts of the puzzle that Kasab, the lone attacker arrested, couldn’t help with. He was only a foot soldier, trained to go kill and get killed.

The conspirators were elsewhere. Some of them were in custody of Pakistan’s security agencies but India will never get an unadulterated account of who planned the attack and how.

Shahid Jamil Riaz can now help India go around those roadblocks. Let’s see. He was not exactly Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, described as the principle architect of 9/11, but he was a big catch.

There was no way we could have let Pakistan fatigue impact our decision on this one. It had to go big and we did go big with it - lead story despite everything else happening on the political front (Manmohan singh and L K Advani not talking, for instance).

And here is how this story landed on Page One.

It was not on anyone’s list till 6:00 pm. And then it popped up on our mails: an alert from our chief of crime bureau in Mumbai. It had a postscript explaining the importance of the story. He needn’t have bothered.

Editors all over - in Delhi and Mumbai - jumped in excitement. The Edition had looked a little weak (as described by Ze Boss). And there it was: the solution of all problems.

This happens at newspapers a lot. Things may look excruciatingly dull - so dull you can actually hear people complain “nothing is happening”. Ominous words according to me; I never use that phrase.’

Sometimes, stories begin popping up as soon as someone uttered that phrase. Boom. A bomb may go off someplace, or a note/letter/document may surface turning everything upside down.

Late one evening, when the paper had looked completely settled, every story had been slotted and accounted for and senior editors had begun packing their laptops, Assam blew up.

Three explosions too place one after the other. Page One changed entirely, and so did inside pages. Very quickly. So what was going on Page One and what was going inside, and how much space do we give the story inside.

Decisions, decisions and decisions.

Next morning, it looked all so easy. The paper showed no signs of the madness that went with it all, hectic pace of developments, activities and everything else that goes into producing a good paper.

The reporter was under pressure to produce the best story possible - all angles covered (an impossible task nowadays with new channels Breaking News every second). Yet, the reporter had to deliver.

The sub-editors/rewriters had to run through the copy at the speed of light. The designer couldn’t afford to get too finicky about the way the artwork looked, even if it was less than perfect. Everyone had to rush.

We did, of course, get late. And a certain Mr X did send everyone a log of release time that reflected neither the effort of the reporter, nor of the sub-editor nor the designer.

Metro went at 11:55, almost an hour behind time.

Stephen said...

I have tried to engage with Mr Yashwant Raj on his blog but he refuses to publish my question or comment. I typed it out twice and it got sent for "moderation" and then obviously Mr Raj pressed the DELETE button!

So they just want to bury their heads in the sand like dodos and pray this goes away. I suggest readers flood the guy with questions!