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Sheena Bora case: Breaking news and it’s coming from police

The police who blame the media for leaks are no slouches themselves when it comes to the leaking department. At this rate, there will be a competition between the media and the police on who can come up with more breaking news items first.

columns Updated: Sep 09, 2015 11:52 IST
Hindustan Times
Sheena Bora murder case,Indrani Mukerjea,Trial by media
Mumbai Police commissioner leaves a police station after questioning Indrani Mukerjea. (AFP Photo)

It was only to be expected — the blitzkrieg of publicity over a case which has sex, sleaze, money and murder in abundance.

The Sheena Bora murder saga has gripped the public imagination as nothing has since perhaps the Aarushi homicide. The dramatis personae in both cases were fodder for the public — in one case successful doctors, in the other prominent media personalities.

If the media had seized upon the Aarushi case when it took place, the Sheena Bora one has been tackled with the tenacity of a fox terrier with a particularly juicy bone. Once again, though the coverage is really over the top, almost as though all other news has ceased to exist, the media was perhaps doing its job.

But what has really alarmed me is the manner in which the police are handling the whole thing. Let me first take up the case which is underway in Mumbai. I agree that the media pursues the police as relentlessly as the Furies in a Greek tragedy when a high-profile case is on. That goes with the territory. But, let me cast your mind back to events as they unfolded. We were told in sepulchral tones by a television anchor that the police chief Rakesh Maria himself would interrogate the prime suspect Indrani Mukerjea. Maria arrives at Khar police station, screamed the news channels. Out came Maria from his vehicle, in slow-motion movie-star style, and disappeared into the station.

Then he comes out a bit later babbling away to the press. The police it would seem are no less publicity-hungry than us common and garden folk. If the family of the dead girl, as some worthies on television put it, is leaking news, the police are giving them stiff competition. Not just Maria, who should surely know better, the other police involved are also warbling to the public and media with gay abandon.

You may think I am a bit paranoid, but just imagine for a minute that there is someone out there who is involved in this case and who has not been apprehended yet. Imagine there is some piece of evidence in someone’s possession that might be vital to this case. All the news coming out from the police could well lead to this person flying the coop or the evidence being destroyed. It could also lead to false information being peddled by those hoping to get their 15 minutes of fame.

In other countries like the UK and the US, the police are firm about investigation, they do not come out with any pertinent detail until the case is over. The crime scene is treated as sacrosanct and no one but no one is allowed to enter the premises. Here, and I do not exaggerate, television footage showed a reporter emerging from the foliage of the area where the body was purportedly disposed of. True the crime was committed three years ago, but surely if anything is to be retrieved, reporters trampling around there will not help, will it?

Here the police have told us all about the fact that the suspect’s brother, or son Mikhail, may be an accomplice, that former Star CEO Peter Mukerjea could be a suspect, that Indrani may be both the sister and mother of the deceased, that the second husband is the murderer, that they have telephone records of conversations the accused had just before the fateful day, that suitcases had been bought to dispose of not one but two bodies. Nothing, it would seem, is to wait till the case is actually prosecuted, if at all.

In the Aarushi case, the first blunder the police made was to allow the media to rush into the house where the child and household help were murdered. So much for securing the crime scene. Then out came a senior police officer casting aspersions on the girl’s character, and later other policemen did not hold back on the morals of the parents, either. Could the case have taken a different turn if the forensics had been carried out properly? Maybe.

Similarly, in the sensational Nithari case, the police were the primary information dispensers. After the dark deeds were done, mind you. The police did little as child after child disappeared in the same area but were quick off the mark with conjectures and theories once the case was going on in full swing.

The police have to be far more circumspect in giving out information. The police who blame the media for leaks are no slouches themselves when it comes to the leaking department. This dangerous trend must stop. The police are there to carry out professional investigations not to engage in media histrionics. Once all the facts of the case are verified, once the accused have been charged, then the police would be within their rights to inform the media and the public.

The police are also quick to apportion guilt. If the person who is pronounced guilty well before charges are pressed as actually innocent, who is he or she to turn to for recompense? The police in the past have been guilty of releasing the names of rape victims, only to admit to the lapse later. This would suggest that many of them do not even know the proper procedures of the law.

There is no law as far as I know which says the police are not at liberty to leak news. But common sense and basic policing techniques suggest that this is a bad idea and hampers rather than helps them arrive at the truth. Often such leaks also reveal prejudice on the part of the police. This is instantly picked up by the more sensational media. In the Indrani case, she has already been branded a murderer. And this is well before the case has been concluded or clinching evidence secured.

Even when there is no news, the police appear as adept as the media in creating a buzz. I will give you an example. Rakesh Maria informed us that Peter Mukerjea would be questioned at the appropriate time. Indeed that moment has now come and has passed. What was the news value of this and what was Maria trying to convey? The non-news was subject to much interpretation including that Peter may spill the beans on his wife. Step back and look at this. Is this what the police chief should be doing? He should be taking pains to keep all information under wraps.

At this rate, there will be a competition between the media and the police on who can come up with more breaking news items first. The one thing that is being compromised is justice of course, and the reputation of the police force as a professional outfit. Perhaps it is time that there were restrictions on the police giving out information every hour on the hour when investigations are going on. But for the moment, they have become players in the very public drama themselves, characters which will later be played with added twists and turns by a Bollywood hero once the dust has settled on this real life murder saga.

First Published: Sep 06, 2015 08:57 IST