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Murder of the Media

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The most disturbing element in the Sushant Rajput suicide case is how the media in general has discarded all norms of ethics, decency and objectivity by its sensationalism and biased coverage. It paints a grim picture for the future of the Indian news space.

By Dilip Bobb

There was no starker example of Indian television’s sensation-fuelled coverage of the apparent suicide of a Bollywood actor than the innocent phrase “imma bounce.” The actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s ex-girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty had ended an online chat with a friend with that sign-off. Immediately, Times Now pounced on the phrase in bold letters, ‘Exclusive! Explosive! Big Expose! Breaking!’ while announcing that the channel had proof of financial skullduggery by Rhea and she had been referring to a bounced cheque. The anchor was heard saying: “Here’s the reality. Look at this. This is ‘IMMA bounce’. Exactly what we’re talking about…This is chats between Rhea and Jaya Saha (a talent manager). This is the bounced cheque that we have accessed.” Millennials were in convulsions; it’s a phrase they use all the time as a globally popular internet slang for “I am leaving” while ending an online conversation. Yet, that public bungle hardly had any effect on the channel’s coverage of the case, along with many others which sacrificed fact for fiction in their desperate bid for the most important acronym in television today: TRP.

That was only matched by ABP News which, in one episode, staged a “postmortem” of Rajput complete with “experts” dressed as doctors, and an effigy that was literally strangled on screen to explain to viewers how Rajput might have died. Times Now’s Navika Kumar added to the dramatics by barging into a live telecast carrying a bag which she declared was “full of evidence”. It turned out to be another 2017 online chat between Rhea and a friend which Kumar said was about marijuana, announcing grandly: “Weed is also called green. It’s a pure coincidence that I’m wearing green tonight,” she said. What the chat was actually about was CBD oil which is prescribed by Ayurvedic doctors. Kumar made it look like Rhea was talking about giving drugs to Sushant.

Even newspapers, which have been more restrained, got caught up in the media frenzy. Gujarat Samachar, one of the oldest Gujarati newspapers, even published a photoshopped picture of Rajput’s body lying on a bed on its front page; despite the Maharashtra cyber police warning that circulation of such photos violated legal guidelines and court directions.

Other anchors pounced on the hashtag #Sorrybabu, quoting an anonymous source as saying he overheard Rhea saying “Sorry Babu” when she went to the mortuary where Rajput’s body had been taken. It was interpreted by multiple anchors as Rhea’s apology for murdering him! Other channels called in ‘paranormal experts’ to speak with his spirit, while the so-called Bollywood mafia was also put in quarantine, courtesy willing accomplices like actor Kangana Ranaut, for plotting against Rajput, while others roped in the underworld as being behind his death. On Republic TV, Arnab Goswami stopped barely short of branding Alia Bhatt and Karan Johar as criminals, showing clips from Johar’s show Koffee with Karan where the host used the word ‘kill’ in an entirely different context during a game with his guests. “Why would you say kill?” screamed the anchor, accompanied by his characteristic show of righteous indignation. It was all so tragically absurd, so patently false, so desperately competitive and so ethically and morally indefensible, that history will record it as the lowest point in the journey of Indian journalism.

Between Times Now, Republic TV,  ABP, Zee News and a host of others, the competition to paint Rhea as the culprit drug dealer, fortune huntress, a mafia moll, sex bait to trap rich men, financial fraudster, manipulative siren, a conniving family out to steal Rajput’s money and, more shockingly, guilty of murder, has only intensified. The truth is that if anyone was guilty of murder, it was the news media which threw all norms of journalism into an overflowing dustbin, where political and personal vendetta and sensationalism combined to portray an institution, one of the pillars of a democracy, as one in deepening moral decay. More painful was the fact that the chats were downloaded from Rhea’s phone by the investigating agencies, which then passed them on to selected media outlets, making them as complicit in the crime of branding a young girl a cold-hearted murderess without a trial, or evidence. The media trial is all that seems to matter, and has been going on uninterrupted since June 14, when the actor was found hanging from a ceiling fan in his apartment.

With a pandemic raging, the grim signs of an unprecedented economic downturn, rising unemployment, the serious clashes with China on the border, and political battles over GST, have all been ignored in favour of what seems, to most police officers, a clear case of suicide. According to a report compiled by industry body Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) and market research firm Nielsen, barring one solitary week (August 1-7) when the Ayodhya temple inauguration dominated headlines, each week from June 25 to August 21, news channels dedicated a majority of their coverage to Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. The actor was found dead in his Mumbai apartment on June 14.

So intense, constant, and biased has been the coverage that Chakraborty and her family have been hounded, threatened, mobbed, and their image and reputation destroyed by the media. Rhea posted a screen grab of an Instagram message from a person claiming to be a fan of Rajput’s, threatening her with rape and murder and urging her to “commit suicide otherwise I will send people to kill you”. Under the post she wrote: “I was called a gold digger, I kept quiet. I was called a murderer, I kept quiet. I was slut shamed, I kept quiet.” She pleaded for help and relief from the ceaseless battering and falsehoods.

Tellingly, in the wake of his death, a majority of channels baying for Rhea’s blood had declared it a suicide. Times Now announced, incorrectly then as well, “Covid + Depression claims life”. News 24 ran a headline — “Arey! Apni hi film dekh lete, Sushant!”, a reference to Rajput’s movie Chhichhore, which dealt with issues of mental health. The channel followed it up with “Reel mai jo nibhaya, real mai usse bhulaya”. (What you maintained on screen, you forgot in life.) India Today said Rajput was struggling with “personal demons”. How that changed overnight as channels unveiled one conspiracy theory after another is, in retrospect, a story of the decline of Indian journalism, led by the TV news industry.

The outrage against news coverage has been late in coming, but it is welcome all the same. While big Bollywood stars have been embarrassingly silent, others have started to speak out. Vidya Balan wrote recently,

“It is so unfortunate that the tragic and untimely demise of a beloved young star Sushant Singh Rajput has become a media circus. In the same breath, as a woman, my heart breaks at the vilification of Rhea Chakraborty. Isn’t it supposed to be ‘Innocent until Proven Guilty’, or is it now ‘Guilty until Proven Innocent’!? Let’s show some respect for the constitutional rights of a citizen and let the law take its course.”

Former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Ribeiro was a more authoritative voice: “Those who conduct media trials should be summoned before a court to provide evidence for their claims. Only then will this nonsense stop,” he said.

Former TV journalist and political activist Ashutosh wrote: “The bigger question is why other journalists became accomplices in this theatre of the absurd. TV by nature is sensational and emotional. It has become scandalous, trivial and frivolous. It feeds on voyeurism. It is sadistic. It’s anything but serious. I have worked in TV for almost 20 years…Before so many channels sprang up, it managed a credible and serious image. After competition shot up, this was soon forsaken in the mad race for TRPs.” He hit the nail on the proverbial head. TRP (Target Rating Point which measures audience size) are directly linked to revenue. If a sensational story involving a good looking actor and his attractive girlfriend can improve TRP’s, then objectivity and truth or verification do not matter.

The issue has predictably gone to the courts. Three activists in Mumbai had moved the Bombay High Court against this “media trial”. Such media trials, they argue, can hamper the investigation in the matter. The activists have listed news channels Times Now, Republic TV, Zee News, NDTV, News 18, and India Today in their petition. Earlier, Saurav Das, an RTI activist, filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission against media houses for “shamelessly sensationalising” Rajput’s death. Das’s complaint included Aaj Tak, for its head­line “Aise kaise hit — wicket hogaye Sushant?”, which he believes violates Rajput’s human rights, as well as ABP News and Zee News. With the media coverage also targeting the Mumbai police, which many see as a personal agenda for powerful anchors who had been called in earlier for questioning over other unrelated cases, eight former top police officers of Maharashtra have moved a public interest litigation (PIL) before the Bombay High Court seeking restraining orders against the ‘media trial’ in the Rajput case. The petitioners, who include former DGPs PS Pasricha, K Subramaniam, D Shivanandan, Sanjeev Dayal, Satish Chandra Mathur, and ex-Commissioners of Mumbai Police Mahesh N Singh, Dhananjay N Jadhav and former Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) chief KP Raghuvanshi, have stated that: “A section of TV Channels has been trying to influence the course of investigation being done by Central Agencies through their biased reporting and false propaganda.” The PIL also criticises the manner in which some news channels are maligning the reputation of the Mumbai Police.

Though the CBI has now taken over the case, TV channels have carried on their relentless coverage, helped by Rajput’s father and sisters who have filed a case against Rhea and are being encouraged in their efforts to brand her guilty by the electronic media. As senior Supreme Court advocate Meenakshi Arora said: “She’s been hanged, drawn and quartered. It’s the job of the investigation and the courts, to try her; it’s not the job of the media. Legally, this is so wrong.”

Rather belatedly, the Press Council has also taken strong objection to the coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput case by the media. It issued an advisory saying the media should adhere to the norms of journalistic conduct in covering cases under investigation and “is advised not to carry out its own parallel trial”, adding “the media should not narrate the story in a manner so as to induce the public to believe in the complicity of the person indicted.”

Columnists have joined in the feeding frenzy. After Rhea broke her silence to appear on three TV channels which have been mature and balanced, to give her side of the story and how she and her family have suffered, author Shobhaa De penned a highly misogynistic opinion piece, writing: “Rhea played every card in the book, and went from vamp to victim in ten easy lessons. She discarded the sati-savitri, head-covered, white salwar kameez, grieving girlfriend look for a more contemporary and casual girl-next-door appearance. Her meticulous recreation of any and every turning point of the tragedy, complete with dates and an assurance that she can produce proof to substantiate her stories, made one marvel”. What Ms De, who describes herself as a feminist, forgot in her desire to go with the flow, was what was wrong with Rhea remembering dates and incidents, considering her life is at stake?

What that also reveals is that even people considered credible are losing perspective in their bid to satiate public desire for salacious gossip and speculation. Playing to the gallery is an age old curse but when it affects the life of a young girl trying to make a career, it crosses a red line. That line has been crossed before in similar cases—Manu Sharma and Jessica Lal, for instance, when the courts remarked that there was

“danger of serious risk of prejudice if the media exercises an unrestricted and unregulated freedom such that it publishes photographs of the suspects or accused before the identification parades are constituted or if the media publishes statements which outrightly (sic) hold the suspect or the accused guilty even before such an order has been passed by the court.”

Other cases where the line of media ethics and propriety was crossed without any thought for those targeted were the Aarushi murder case and another alleged suicide, Sunanda Pushkar.

The current case has taken media coverage to new highs, or new lows to be more precise, and exposed the industry for what it really is; a ravenous beast with an insatiable appetite for sensationalism and speculation, where truth and facts have been sacrificed on the altar of TRPs.

Here’s the proof. Between July 24 and July 29, according to the BARC survey, Republic TV conducted 45 out of 50 debates on the Rajput case. In contrast, it had one debate on the NEET/JEE student protests and exactly one on the coronavirus crisis which was then breaking new infection records. The result: Republic TV gained a 50 percent market share. Here’s the darker side of the TRP story: those figures would not be possible if the audience for such journalism did not exist. That is as sad a commentary on Indian society as it is on the media outlets that provide such salacious and provocative content, ignoring the reality of the life and future of a young woman being destroyed in the process.

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