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Fact check, anyone?

Reflecting popular anger is one thing. Taking sides is quite another. A criminal charge has to be based on evidence, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jan 09, 2010 23:19 IST

‘What do you make of the way the media are covering the Ruchika Girhotra story?’ It sounded like an innocent question. But knowing Pertie, I suspected there was more to it than curiosity. The look on his face suggested he had a clear view of his own and he was taunting me.

“You tell me,” I replied, deftly reversing the question. “I bet you have an answer of your own.”

“Well,” he continued, unflustered. “Is this campaign journalism or unbalanced journalism? The media have clearly decided that S.P.S. Rathore is guilty of abetment to suicide. But have they got their facts right?”

Pertie paused, but continued before I could respond. “The truth is that Rathore was originally charged with abetment to suicide but it was dropped on the orders of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Later the Supreme Court concurred. But has the media pointed this out? I wouldn’t say so. In fact, they seem to have deliberately ignored it.” “Nonsense,” I shot back. “If the media haven’t reported it how do you know about it?”

“At best it’s been tucked away like some inconvenient detail. It certainly hasn’t deterred the papers or the news channels screaming for the police to charge him with abetment. But that’s not all. A criminal charge has to be based on evidence. What’s the basis on which the media is demanding this charge? Have they bothered to explain? No. And why not? Because they don’t have the facts and I bet they don’t know the law either. Their position is motivated by anger, not facts.”

“The media are relying on Ruchika’s family and friends.” I felt my voice rising. “But is that being balanced or objective? If the media goes by everything they say, isn’t it taking sides? The Supreme Court has made it clear that a mere allegation cannot be the grounds for convicting a man for abetment to suicide. You need to show a clear intention on the part of the accused to incite or encourage suicide. But what evidence do we have of that?”

“Hang on, Pertie.” I was convinced he had missed the point. “This man is accused of molesting a minor, having her expelled from school and arranging for her brother to be tortured. Yet all he got was a mere six-month sentence. He walked out of court grinning like a cheshire cat. Worse, politicians and officials connived to protect him. Can’t you see there’s a lot of anger about this? How can the media not reflect it? What else would you expect?”

“Reflecting popular anger is one thing; taking sides is quite another. And, worst, launching a campaign against the man, oblivious of the facts and without a solid case, will only help him.”

“How?” I asked aggressively.

“By allowing him to claim he’s being hounded by the press and that all the fresh FIRs against him have been filed under pressure. It’s an argument the courts would find hard to ignore, and if they don’t the media’s handling will have boomeranged.”

I held my peace. It provided the perfect moment for Pertie’s conclusion: “The media need to carefully consider how it tackles such stories. Their intention may be unimpeachable but if, in the process, balance, objectivity and fairness are forgotten they could end up scoring a self-goal.”

The views expressed by the author are personal