13 June 2016

The Batla House controversy

On the 23rd of May, Arnab Goswami on his Times Now show "The Newshour" brought sensationalised journalism to a new low by his insensitive labelling of Asad Ashraf, a journalist and a guest on his show as a 'Indian Mujahedeen sympathiser'. Asad Asharf, who worked at DNA, was called a "cover for terror outfit Indian Mujahideen" during a debate over controversial Batla House encounter by anchor Arnab Goswami.


Simply, because Ashraf is a Muslim.
The risk of being a muslim in a society divided into binary opposites based on religion proved unfavourable as Ashraf, along with a handful of other people, were branded as "attack sympathisers" and "Batla stand defenders" in a show that superficially debated the recent release of an (Islamic State) ISIS propaganda video!

The video was later removed by Times Now from their website.

The Batla House encounter officially known as "Operation Batla House", took place on 19 September 2008, against Indian Mujahideen (IM) terrorists in Batla House locality in Jamia Nagar, Delhi, in which two suspected terrorists, Atif Amin and Mohamed Sajid were killed while two other suspects Mohd Saif and Zeeshan were arrested, while one accused Ariz Khan managed to escape. Encounter specialist and Delhi Police inspector Mohan Chand Sharma, who led the police action was also killed during the incident. The encounter led to arrest of a number of local people, leading to widespread allegations and protests by political parties, civil society groups, activists, especially teachers and students of the Jamia Millia University. Several political organizations like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) demanded a judicial enquiry into the encounter, in the Parliament, as "new versions" of the encounter, started appearing in the newspapers. Subsequently, on the Delhi High Court 's directive on 21 May 2009, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in its 22 July report cleared the police of any violations of rights.Public speculations and debate however continued.

A debate was held at Times Now channel after a ISIS video surfaced featuring an alleged Batla House encounter terrorist who managed to escape. “Where are the sympathisers of Batla House encounter?” asked Arnab Goswami. Journalist Asad Ashraf, who has been reluctant to accept Batla House encounter as a genuine encounter in the light of several discrepancies and loopholes in the police version of it, was invited to discuss on the issue.

The following is Asad's personal take on that particular situation and the present state of journalism as a whole:
“As I sit to write this piece, images from the day Arnab Goswami called me a 'cover for the Indian Mujahideen' in his studio, return to my mind. If it's merely the thought of being called a terrorist that scares me, I wonder what it would be like for those who are implicated in cases of terrorism on false charges.”

The question that arises: Is Arnab Goswami, arguably the most well-known face of Indian TV journalism today, setting a precedent that is very dangerous for the future of this country? Even as Asad vehemently writes:

“He is teaching a whole bunch of young journalists, who follow him, not to question the narratives propounded by the state machinery, to believe every word of it and call every detractor an 'anti-national'. While in a democracy where journalism is considered the Fourth Estate, it is the duty of journalists to continue to be watchdogs.

He is bifurcating opinion into the plain binary of national and anti-national!

Someone who agrees with him is a nationalist, while others are anti-national. In the name of debate, he is actually running media trials.”

Amidst the frenzy around the release of the video and the question of its authenticity, which was also raised on the show by various participants, it is important to remember that the video itself has been taken down and is unavailable.

All Ashraf was attempting to do on the show was highlight the loopholes in the police's version of the Batla House encounter. As a journalist, I felt, he had every right to do so. He was by no means attempting to say the accused were innocent.

“The take away from the events of that day not only jolt me, but also present a very grim picture of the time in which we are living. Journalism, once a respected profession has become a tool of hoop-la into the hands of certain promoters who use it as a mechanism to build public opinion and manufacture consent.” He further stated.

The absurdity of a situation, wherein Goswami calls Asad “a sympathiser of the Islamic State” and “a cover for the Indian Mujahideen”  just because he pondered over certain loopholes in the police version of the Batla House encounter strikes a poignant chord at the face of secular journalism.

Furthermore, Asad argues that “what must have really annoyed Arnab is the fact that I not only questioned the authenticity of the encounter, but also the video - that was supposedly released by the Islamic State - featuring one of the 'absconders' of the Batla House encounter. And that this came mere months after Arnab allegedly played doctored videos of JNU students on his show must have hit him where it hurts the most.” Playing at the role of a media man for seeking the truth Asad exemplifies that  “…as a journalist, with an acumen for investigation, Arnab should not only have agreed with me but should have also tried to investigate whether that video was at all genuine.But on the contrary, I was asked by him that if it was a 'fancy-dress competition'?Why not? It could have been a fancy-dress competition - a bit like hoax calls. Don't we have hoax calls about bombs being planted?

Did the video undergo forensic examination before being aired on Arnab's Newshour and becoming a matter of debate?”

On the other end, Tasleem Rahmani of the All-India Muslim Council pointed out how even the employees of Times Now were not sure about the authenticity of that video as they ran the ticker, '#BatlamaninISIS' below the screen followed by a question mark.
“But logic ceases to exist when it confronts Arnab Goswami on his Newshour show.
And what replaces it seems to be pure rhetoric woven into allegations and accusations.”, vents an infuriated Asad.

What is more shocking and ultimately threatening is the fate of the media and journalism in this nation, as exposed by the show.
The debate exposed two kind of journalism at play.
Goswami’s brand of journalism, which is both fed by and feeds on viewer ratings, is of screaming at others and tautology. He invites people less for conducting a debate and more for pillorying them with condemnations and accusations, and not allowing them the courtesy of defending themselves.
The moot question remains that will Goswami's brand of journalism be able to subdue the voice of reason and silence Ashraf's journalism, which merely wanted to open the debate up and question rather than claim?

- Ahona Das

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