In defence of India Today's coverage of Paresh Mesta's murder
I reject every charge flung at both myself and the organisation in our illumination of the story.
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Over the last 24 hours, a preposterous suggestion has been made from several quarters, some of them ludicrously motivated by political bias, that I, through my shows on India Today this week, have stirred communal tensions over the death of a young man, Paresh Mesta, in Karnataka.
I've been branded a communal hatemonger, a rabble-rouser and a plainly bad journalist who deliberately picked up the Paresh Mesta story with the specific intention of, among other things, "scoring TRPs", "fanning communal tensions before the Karnataka elections", "currying favour with the BJP". Calls have gone out from several quarters for my sacking, arrest or both. I stand accused by some of these sites of peddling fake news.
In the interests of transparency and grace - and a commitment to my audience and viewers - I felt it incumbent on me to offer you a version not contaminated by the inherent political leanings that many of these allegations emanate from. I don't have a problem with allegations from people or websites with political leanings/biases - surely they're entitled to accuse me as they wish. I'm merely pointing out that their allegations are jaundiced by their biases.
What I am offering here is a straight-up first hand perspective of how I picked up the story for my show starting December 11. It is pertinent to point out here that the story remains a top focus on our channel - India Today happens to be the only "mainstream" channel reporting the story.
On the evening of December 10, a member of Parliament from coastal Karnataka tweeted the following:
SP under #SiddaramaiahRule has declared this as 'Samaanya Saavu'Hindu boy 21 yr old Paresh Mesta goes missing.when he was found, he was mutilated,castrated.burnt by boiling oil poured over his head & his head split dastardly with a weapon. pic.twitter.com/tmxkK6r2GS— Shobha Karandlaje (@ShobhaBJP) December 10, 2017
Coming from an elected representative, this was a story that needed to be tracked. The following day, our correspondent in Karnataka filed a report quoting sources on the gruesome allegation by the BJP MP.
I subsequently tweeted a local report about the incident.
‘Boiling oil poured on his head, castrated, his head split open’. Ghastly murder of 21-year-old Paresh Mesta sparks tensions in coastal Karnataka. https://t.co/klC0p1Z2IW— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) December 11, 2017
Deciding that this would be our top story at 5pm, we invited both the police and BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje to join us on our show. Given logistical constraints on the ground, the option was provided to pre-record with both or either. While Shobha Karandlaje took our questions, the police did not join us on the show.
A tweet promoting the show carried the gruesome allegations of the BJP MP and sources on the ground - a tweet that I personally composed. Unlike my earlier tweet, this one didn't carry quotes indicating that it was an allegation.
Closer to the show's broadcast time, I tweeted mentioning that police and BJP MP would be joining me on my show. Why would we invite the police and the BJP MP if it was our intention to stir communal unrest? To be clear, tensions had already broken out in some places - I had hoped to bring the police onto our show to clear the air and to also offer a message warning trouble-makers to watch what they did. As mentioned earlier, the police did not join us.
Given the sensitivity of the allegations - and we at no point mentioned the specific nature of who was being accused by the BJP - we first ran the Karnataka home minister's version of events. This was followed by my questions to the BJP MP making the explosive allegations. Listen to the full list of questions I asked her, including whether she had evidence to support her specific allegations:
Later that evening, the police, which had sparked its own controversy by declaring that the death was a "samanya saavu", released a Q&A report with a forensics doctor, a document that appeared to fully contradict the BJP's explosive charges. I happened to be among the first to tweet this out:
BREAKING: Police report accessed by @IndiaToday quotes post mortem doctor, debunking claims by BJP that Paresh Mesta was murdered with ‘oil, castrated & mutilated’. Breaking now. pic.twitter.com/yAqNrolakS— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) December 11, 2017
I followed this up with another tweet, since this was an official document that appeared to fully debunk the BJP MP's allegations:
Onus now on @BJP4Karnataka & @ShobhaBJP to explain their very specific charges of 'jihadi torture' in the Paresh Mesta case? They've called for an NIA probe -- will they claim cover-up now? What next? Major divergence in claims on both sides.— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) December 11, 2017
Breaking the story at 8.30pm, I joined India Today's Gaurav Sawant on his show "India First" to put out the full details of the police's version:
The following day, Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah tweeted that the death of Paresh Mesta was "unfortunate" - a curious choice of word. Just as the BJP was certain this was a gruesome murder, was he certain this wasn't murder at all? Could a murder ever be "unfortunate"? Was he simply alleging that this wasn't murder, but a natural death, much like the Karnataka Police had done the previous day?
A desperate @BJP4Karnataka stoops so low as to use the unfortunate death of a youth Paresh Mesta in Honnavar for political gains. BJP leaders are heeding the advice of @AmitShah to create trouble & invite police action. People are getting hurt by their irresponsible acts.— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) December 12, 2017
On December 12, India Today deployed its Karnataka reporter Nolan Pinto to Honnavar and the surrounding areas to report from the ground on the tensions and the investigation. My colleague Padmaja Joshi led with the story on her 8pm show that evening, reporting on the questions raised over the Q&A report broken by us the previous day. The show included the only mainstream ground report on the tensions.
Here's that full broadcast on December 12:
We continued our coverage on December 13 with our ground reports:
The following morning, putting the spotlight on the political war that had broken out, we planned a morning face-off between the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP on the issue. While the BJP joined us, the Congress apparently declined, forcing us to plan a face-off between the BJP and a member of the CPI (considering the allegations were of a political killing). Here's that full broadcast:
My third straight show on the issue, on December 13, focused on Paresh Mesta's father, who had now spoken out, alleging a cover-up and making the same allegation that BJP had made - that his son had been abducted, tortured and killed. A grieving father's claims carry with them their own anger, but they cannot be ignored either. We reported these too, all the while raising questions and reporting the course of the investigation:
Shortly after my show, the Karnataka government decided it would be handing the case over to the CBI. We spoke to the Karnataka home minister to find out why:
As I mentioned before, our coverage of the story continues. We were the first to pick it up, put the spotlight on it, and continue to report every aspect of the investigation. The allegations of fake news, based on a promotional tweet, and choosing to spend no time watching the depth of our entirely balanced coverage - not for a moment communally inciteful - reveals more about the effortless slants that afflict "media watchers". Branding a developing story as "fake news" before the investigation is even complete belies a lip-smacking impulse of jumping the gun, and an utter insistence to dwell on a tweet removed from context rather than digest the depth of our coverage.
A cursory look at my social media timelines will tell anyone that I'm the last person to defend shoddy media decisions and coverage. Nor do I consider myself above criticism. Slights on India Today's gold standard of journalism are particularly erroneous. Which other channel has bothered to shine a light on a story that would have sank without a trace?
On a final note, I happen to be native of the general area in coastal Karnataka where Paresh Mesta met his end. Spending several of my summer holidays in this beautiful part of the country, I can affirm that it has long been a place of conspicuously syncretic culture, where religious harmony has flourished. None of this should convince anyone that I couldn't somehow have ulterior political biases or motives. The fact that I don't is separate. I merely mention this since communal tension of any kind - and particularly in a place I love and am familiar with - is painful. I would never ever have any part of it.
What I've offered here is some light on the news process involved in the delivery of the Paresh Mesta story. And while I reject every charge flung at both myself and India Today in our illumination of the story, I assume sole responsibility for everything that went into it.