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Press Council slams Gujarati dailies for role in riots
R Prema in New Delhi | July 01, 2003 23:55 IST
The Press Council of India on Monday censured two leading Gujarati dailies, Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar, for publishing 'scurrilous' reports during last year's communal carnage in Gujarat.
The full council met in New Delhi under the chairmanship of Justice K Jayachandra Reddy, a retired Supreme Court judge, and endorsed the findings and recommendations of an inquiry committee.
The inquiry committee had held its sittings in Ahmedabad on April 28 and 29 to examine eight complaints against Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar.
The committee also examined 16 other complaints against some English newspapers, including The Hindu, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Telegraph and Deccan Chronicle. These complaints were, however, closed with advice to the press to be more diligent in gathering facts and restrained in presenting them.
The committee initially thought of issuing a warning to Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar, but later decided that the two dailies deserved nothing short of a 'censure'.
The inquiry committee expressed its 'displeasure' over the boycott of its sittings by Gujarat Samachar. The paper also did not respond to the council's notices on five of the six complaints against it.
There were six complaints against Sandesh and it sought to take refuge behind the plea that it had carried the reports 'in good faith'.
As recommended by the committee, the council censured both Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar "for the infraction of the norms of journalistic conduct in some of the reports".
The council also chose the occasion to advise the media, including the electronic media, "to introspect on its role in the coverage of these riots, learn from its errors, and ensure that in future at least its reportage serves to douse the passions of divisive forces and encourages the people of this country to rise above the divisions of caste and creed".
The inquiry committee report, which was endorsed by the full council, pulled up Sandesh for being 'negligent' in publishing on March 1, 2002, a report titled 'Dead bodies of two young women found in very distorted condition'.
The report claimed that two girls abducted from the Sabarmati Express had been found dead with their breasts cut off.
Sandesh's defence was that the report was "published in good faith and with an intention to caution and alert the public at large to take precautionary steps and also to protect members of the society after taking necessary note of the news". It also claimed that the same report was carried by several other newspapers.
The inquiry committee noted that "even though the reported incident had been publicly denied and this denial reported by another paper, Sandesh did nothing to inform its readers about the same".
Sandesh was also censured for another report of March 6, 2002, which said that a group of pilgrims returning from the Hajj were carrying RDX and other explosives for mounting attacks on Hindus. The report had added that terrorists, on orders of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, were just waiting for the Hajj pilgrims to return to begin their attacks.
The committee held that the report "appeared aimed at creating a sensation in the surcharged atmosphere" as "facts therein did not conform to the information given out by the concerned authorities".
Stopping short of a blanket condemnation of Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar as suggested by senior journalist Batuk Vohra in an article, the committee said it "did not appreciate the headlines like 'Godhra killings a challenge to the rise of Hindutva' in February 28, 2002, issue of Gujarat Samachar or even some of the later reports/articles that exhorted Hindus to rise as a class against the Muslims".
The committee noted that "a greater onus lies in times of crisis on regional media rather than the national media in restoring the faith of the public in the law and order situation and encouraging communal harmony and amity".
Among the complaints received by the Press Council against the two Gujarati dailies was one by the Citizens of Ahmedabad against Sandesh for encouraging violence. Other complaints accused both dailies of publishing "misleading and inflammatory reports in March-April 2002 and playing a criminal role in spreading riots in Gujarat after the Godhra violence".
A memorandum from the Citizens of Ahmedabad, which was accepted by the Press Council as a complaint, had cited not one or two, but as many as 17 'bogus' reports and headlines in Sandesh written in 'provocative and instigating language'.
The editor of Sandesh claimed that these reports were "published by all other newspapers in the state and repeatedly aired on TV channels".
In its conclusion, the council noted that the Gujarat riots gave "a terrible shock to India's fair secular name. It was a national shame. There is no need to reiterate the norms that media has to adhere to in such situation."
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