The manner in which the Sunanda affair has been pursued by some sections of the media raises several questions on journalistic ethics and how TRP driven sensationalism coupled with a latent political objective can erode basic norms of fact checking and accurate reporting, which are considered basic to, andessential in, serious journalism. Let me elaborate by citing a few examples that highlight the huge gaps between fact and fiction, myth and reality in this case.
BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, who has mastered the art of misery-hunting for the sake of publicity, has filed a petition in the Delhi High Court seeking a court monitored probe by a CBI led special investigation team into the death of Sunanda Pushkar. Despite many of the claims by Dr Swamy falling flat on their face in this case, the media continue to give generous attention to everything he says. They have widelyreported this motivated petition by somebody who fancies himself as an avataar of Sherlock Holmes! While Sherlock Holmes solved cases, the one we have the misfortune of hearing everyday on prime time merely complicates cases by making up outrageous claims which are not founded in facts. Did Dr Swamynot say that a Russian poison polonium had been used to “murder” Sunanda? That spectacular theory was debunked by an FBI report which after examining the viscera samples concluded that no radioactive substance has been found in Sunanda Pushkar’s body.Of course, there was no visible sign ofmpolonium (ormany other) poisoning on the body, but that did not deter Swamy from making his outrageous claims, nor the media from reporting them uncritically.
This wasn’t the only false claim made by Subramanian Swamy. He also claimed that AIIMS forensic doctor, Sudhir Gupta was pressurised to modify his post mortem report findings. AIIMS administration under Dr Harshvardhan, the then health minister (a seniorcolleague of Dr Swamy in the BJP) held a special press conference in July 2014 and dismissed these charges categorically. On March 4th 2015 the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) rejected the allegations peddled by Sudhir Gupta and Subramanian Swamy. Still, the media continue to report such claims.
Swamy had also claimed that the Leela hotel in Delhi had deliberately tampered with the CCTV footage on the floor where Sunanda Pushkar’s room was located,but this falsehood was also busted by journalists who verified from the Leela Hotel that all 230 CCTV cameras, including ten on the said floor, had beenhanded over to the Delhi police and their receipt had been acknowledged.
Swamy had also claimed repeatedly that he had seen Sunanda’s autopsy video: nobody in the media haseven questioned how he got access to this in violation of rules and ethics, when even the deceased’s family has been denied access. He claimed he had noticed bruise marks and injection marks which he claimswere significant. He conveniently omits the fact that just before her death, Sunanda was hospitalised for three days and two nights at the KIMS Hospital in Trivandrum for undergoing various tests and the needle marks on her body were for the blood samples collected and due to an IV feed which has been administered to her. All this had been confirmed by various reports, but Swamy was undeterred. Contrary to what is claimed by Swamy, Sunanda was not in the “pink of her health” before her death and through her tweets from the 19th of October 2013 she confirmed that she was suffering from high fevers and lupus triggered by stress! Apparently Swamy thinks he is a more reliable source on Sunanda’s health than Sunanda herself.
Sadly, a number of incidents testify to Sunanda’sfragile health and mental state in the weeks leading up to her death. Many, including witnesses like close friend Tej Saraf, have described how Sunanda was exhibiting unusual and irrational behaviour including taking fistful of medicines at one time and claiming to be in regular contact with George Bush and Manmohan Singh. The Khaleej Times reported on its front page Sunanda’s threat to its reporter: “I have thrown whisky in the face of Arab Goswami and I will do the same to you.” Such erratic behaviour extended to various other statements and sometimes also include self infliction of injuries in patients suffering from such disorders.
AIIMS Board’s final report stated, including to the FBI, that “the cause of death was poisoning and the viscera was positive for ethyl alcohol, caffeine, acetaminophen and cotinine”. And India’s premier forensics lab — CFSL actually had arrived at the same conclusion that a cocktail of alcohol and toxicity from long-term ingestion of medicines could have led to Sunanda’s death and this was also endorsed by others. Padma Bhushan awardee and perhaps the foremost name in forensics science, Dr P Chandra Sekharan,wrote to the Health Minister about this and said “The entire Post-Mortem report (by Sudhir Gupta) was an embarrassment to the profession and it made unwarranted assumptions of poisoning and sought to substantiate it by conducting a wild-goose chase for obscure and unknown poisons.” He added that in his considered opinion “in all probability the death of Sunanda Pushkar was due to the prolonged, over-intake of Acetaminophen while consuming alcohol and her death was accidental and self-induced.” Yet these facts are never placed before unsuspectingviewers and certain channels continue to concoct and cook up facts that simply don’t exist, merely to make a tragic death look like a murder!!
No less than Sunanda Pushkar’s own biological son Shiv Menon, dismayed by the constant lies and allegations being hurled against Dr Tharoor, with whom he has stood steadfastly, filed a plea seeking to be impleaded in the case by Swamy, given his own belief that Subramanian Swamy had no locus standiand that his only motivation was cheap publicity. Is it not Swami’s government that is in power and controls the Delhi police? Does Swamy’s publicity-seeking PIL betray his lack of faith in the sense of integrity and capacity of Rajnath Singh who heads the home affairs ministry to which the Delhi police reports?
Swamy keeps claiming he knows Sunanda was murdered (the media never asks him how he knows what he claims to know). If Subramanian Swamy had all the evidence and proof of a murder, why did he not record his statement to Delhi police, or hand over his proof to Prime Minister Modi, who appointed DrShashi Tharoor as a Swachh Bharat Ambassador! These are questions media channels never ask of him. All that Swamy has chosen to do is add masala to an irresistible story for TRP hungry news channels.
For some television news channels to call Sunanda’stragic death a murder and label Shashi Tharoor as an accused on the basis of such preposterous lies,especially when the Delhi police after 3 1/2 years of investigation has found no evidence of any crime and refuses to call him even a suspect, is the biggest miscarriage of truth! Such journalism is nothing short of an organised fake encounter — a character assassination of an individual who is seen as a political or ideological foe. Is it a coincidence that the owner of the channel which is at the forefront of running this agenda against Dr Tharoor on the basis of Subramanian Swamy’s outrageous theories has a vested political interest in ensuring that Dr Tharoor loses his MP constituency of Trivandrum? Is it not the truth that the said owner of this channel happens to be the vice-chair of the NDA in Kerala, which sees DrTharoor as the biggest hurdle in gaining a foothold in the southern state! So what better way to dislodge a political leader loved by his constituents than to run an unsubstantiated personal negative campaign against him?
The most visible evidence of this was when reporters (or dare I say trolls) of the channel literally chased DrTharoor and asked him why he was “running away”like a “coward”! Is this even journalism? Does it have any basis in facts? Or is it plain propaganda?
On more than one occasion now, including the last hearing on 16th August, the Delhi High Court in a defamation suit filed by Congress MP Dr Shashi Tharoor against this jingoistic “news” channel has cautioned the said channel from misreporting on the case relating to the death of his wife SunandaPushkar. It has reminded the Mumbai-based channel to respect the right of Dr Tharoor (who has not even been called a suspect or an accused by the Delhi Police) to remain silent while the investigations were on and to tone down its rhetoric against him on the said case.
The Delhi HC with its observations has already given us enough of an indication about their disapproval for this kind of sloppy & biased journalism. Will the rest of the media wake up and call this out? That is the real question.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.