‘The criminal here is the media’: Journalists recount how ISRO spy case was concocted

Asianet was one of the few media houses that questioned the spy case narrative and the police even filed a defamation case against the channel.
‘The criminal here is the media’: Journalists recount how ISRO spy case was concocted
‘The criminal here is the media’: Journalists recount how ISRO spy case was concocted

As Nambi Narayanan finally received a modicum of justice from the Supreme Court on Friday in the infamous ‘ISRO spy case’, two journalists reminisce upon the media attention that surrounded (or perhaps spawned) the case then.

Asian College of Journalism chairman and Asianet founder Sashi Kumar took to Facebook on Saturday to share his memories of the media fracas around the ISRO spy case when it broke, and in particular, the path that television channel Asianet took in reporting the case, compared to other Malayalam news houses.

He recounted how Asianet stood steadfast and alone “in calling this humongous bluff perpetrated on a credulous public in Kerala and the rest of India”, and mentioned the repercussions he faced because of it.

When a Special Investigation Team (SIT) team took over the case in 1996, the Kerala police tried intimidating Sashi Kumar by filing a defamation case against him, claiming that the channel’s assertion that ‘the case was malicious and fraudulent’ was defamatory against the Kerala police.

According to Sashi Kumar, it was a combination of various factors - the facts gleaned by Asianet’s editorial team, the anecdotal evidence, accounts by those who were in the know, the lapses, inconsistencies and contradictions in the stories handed out by the police to the press - that convinced him that it was a fraudulent case.

“When the case first broke, Asianet did not have a formal news bulletin yet. So the channel’s perspective and position on this case were actually expressed by Babu Bhaskar and Paul Zacharia in the programme 'Pathra Vishesham', and by T.N. Gopakumar in his 'Kannadi' slot. Even when we launched a formal news bulletin, we pursued the same approach of not unquestioningly accepting the versions put out by the police and intelligence departments. The core principle that guided us was that it is the duty of the free press in a democracy to be critically adversarial to the state; not to be a mouthpiece or propaganda arm of the state,” he said in an email interview with TNM. 

And the defamation case filed against him was not a deterrent to their coverage of the case. “There was an attempt to muzzle us with a defamation suit and the chilling effect, the police thought, might have on the channel. However, none of us was personally threatened or intimidated. Although, of course, there was a sense of concern and worry among the police personnel involved, that we were being quite open and demonstrative about their dislike for us and for the trouble and embarrassment the channel was causing them.” 

Sashi Kumar also recounts applying for an anticipatory bail and how senior journalist and then full-time consultant of Asianet, Paul Zacharia, stood as his bail guarantor. 

“Nevertheless, Asianet continued to poke holes in the news handouts and the information planted by the police and some of the intelligence agencies,” adds Sashi Kumar.

According to writer and veteran journalist Paul Zacharia, who spoke to TNM, the ISRO case was one of the most sordid stories of a nexus between politics, media and police, and a horrible deeds by the Indian media.

When asked about Asianet’s unique stance in reporting the issue in 1994, he says, “It was impossible to work in media at the time and not realise that this was a fraudulent case, and that other news organisations could hardly claim ignorance of the facts as an excuse for their reportage.”

He says that nearly every other Malayalam news organisation wilfully manufactured lies around this case, even putting reporters on notice for not submitting enough “fairy tales” around this story per day. He also points out how the involvement of two good-looking women, who misunderstood complex technology, ISRO and politics, converged in this fraudulent case to create the kind of story that many media houses could get months of traction from.

He recounts, “The whole story began with a 3 centimetre-long story in the Communist party’s official newspaper, about the arrest of a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rashida, for overstaying her visa by a few days. Then, another news house, Mangalam, picked up the story and began connecting the arrested woman with various businessmen and scientists. This strategy proved successful for Mangalam in terms of creating buzz around a (non-existent) story.”

Soon, other news houses, such as Malayala Manorama and then Mathrubhumi, also picked it up, until it snowballed into a quasi James Bond-esque thriller of sex, politics, misunderstood scientific technology, corruption and espionage that no media house could ignore.

Zacharia points out that politicians began seeing the story as an opportune moment to reach their own conclusion soon enough, and piled on to facilitate the ouster of then Kerala Chief Minister K Karunakaran in favour of AK Antony. He adds that without the media fabrication of the story, politicians would not have had any material to work with.

“Essentially, the criminal here is the media itself. If the media hadn’t built it up, politicians would not have been able to leverage it effectively,” he says.

He also points out that despite ruining the lives and careers of the scientists, businessmen, politicians and others implicated in this case, not a single media organisation has apologised for their unethical and fabricated coverage of the case so far.

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