IIT-M and the press

UPDATE 30/08/2012: If you read the following, do also read the comments, especially the ones from Vinodhini and K N Arun (both are former TNIE journalists, and Arun was a very senior figure there; disclosure — my wife is a former TNIE journalist too); and from Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a well-known electrical engineering professor at IIT Madras, who quotes an official IIT statement that I haven’t seen in the media. In my opinion, the TNIE needs to address that statement on its pages, since it is flagrantly contrary to what they have been publishing, but — to an impartial observer — is quite believable.


The New Indian Express is currently on a crusade against IIT Madras because one of their photographers was allegedly roughed up by IIT security and a professor. The photographer was clicking photographs of grieving students at a women’s hostel where a student had committed suicide. Reportedly he was asked to desist, and refused. So he was assaulted, he says, by security and the professor. He filed a complaint with the police, and IIT has filed a counter-complaint against him.

There is no doubt that, if IIT assaulted him, they overstepped. It should be possible for security to remove an unarmed person peacefully and without violence. IIT needs to ask itself some hard questions on how this matter was handled

But does it follow that the photographer was in the right, or was merely doing his duty? That’s what one would infer from the media reports. I don’t see it that way.

This was a case of a student who committed suicide, apparently for personal reasons unrelated to IIT and most certainly unrelated to fellow hostel residents. Where was the need for the Express to dispatch a photographer to IIT? What possible value could be added by photos of grieving students at the hostel?

Yesterday the Express published twenty photographs taken by this photographer. Some are featureless photographs of the hostel, while others are photos of students, some of whom are clearly uncomfortable and trying to cover their faces or turning their backs to the camera. What the photos contain is a violation of privacy of individuals without the slightest public-interest justification. What they do not contain is any sort of newsworthiness. After some thought, I have decided not to link the photos — the individuals in them do not deserve this sort of internet publicity. Still, if you want to see them, the New Indian Express website has them quite prominently as of this writing.

I have not named individuals above, because I feel this is about the institutions. As I said above, IIT-M should have been able to handle the photographer without violence. Let me, however, link to a couple of articles from New Indian Express staffers.

The first, by D Suresh Kumar, is headlined "Internal mails hint at ploy to frame Albin". This is not really substantiated by the story, which suggests, at least to my reading, that IIT-M did not want a fight with the newspaper and decided to file a counter-complaint only in response to the aggressive stance of the Express. It also quotes allegations from a "globally accomplished" professor that it was the photographer who started the violence, by "tearing" the professor's shirt and "hitting" him.

Suresh Kumar ends by quoting another IIT-M professor: "While extending all possible support to our people involved, we should be strong enough to say, ‘Yes, there has been an error on our part and we deeply regret it’ and try for an out-of-court settlement." I fully agree with that. But is there also any introspection at the Express for their role in the affair? I see no sign whatever of it on their pages.

Which leads me to the article by G Babu Jayakumar, one of the more senior New Indian Express journalists. Headlined “Mr Sibal, how low will IIT-M stoop?”, he says “we are publishing all the pictures that Mathew took on the campus on August 21. They speak for themselves.” Yes, Mr Jayakumar, indeed they do — the publication of these completely non-newsworthy photos, and your stance and that of your newspaper, say more about your value system than any words could.

Finally, the Express alleges that IIT-M members are asking “why students were used in filing complaints against the photographer”. I have no idea about the internal discussions at IIT, but, sad to say, I find it believable that our police will only accept a complaint of harassment from the victim and not from the third party. It would be nice if the hostel warden were allowed to make the complaint, but I am not sure this can be done.

Meanwhile, the Express has published photographs of IIT women students trying to shield their faces from their photographer. It will be interesting to hear why they think this is not harassment. And do we really know that they have published all the photographs that were taken?

G Babu Jayakumar alleges an IIT “smear campaign” against the media, but so far I see no evidence of this — even the other English-language newspapers seem to be supporting the Express photographer, and making no effort to find out what really happened. I do see a smear campaign here, but it is entirely in the other direction, I’m afraid. Perhaps some members of IIT-M would indeed like to carry out a “smear campaign” against the media. But it is simply not possible. In situations like this, media organisations tend close ranks.

IIT-M should introspect. So should the Express, and the media in general. And share their introspections with us — perhaps by publishing their internal e-mails, similarly to how Suresh Kumar quotes internal IIT-M mails in his article. Will they do it?

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19 Comments

  1. DK Samuel

     /  August 28, 2012

    Sir, in times of grief and shock we all get excited, but we can apologize and move on, it is not a crime to take photos of any crime scene by an authorized news photographer

    Reply
  2. benedictg

     /  August 28, 2012

    quite a shame for Indian express _ a paper that stood firm on larger issues like emergency and risked it all .. needs to take up a suicide issue in IIT and cry fowl for being man handled…

    Reply
  3. Vinodhini

     /  August 28, 2012

    A news photographer in the employment of a newspaper or any media can take photographs of the crime scene only WITH POLICE PERMISSION. He/She is bound by rules such as taking permission of owner while taking photograph in private area, CANNOT take photographs of a rape victim or a victim of sexual abuse who is a minor, cannot take photographs of areas like educational institutions, restaurants, even malls which ARE NOT public places without permission. Individuals have a right to ask not to be photographed (nude, clothed or otherwise). These are not only general rules of ethics but also of decency. It has nothing to do with press freedom.

    Reply
  4. I have been asked this question by many of my students at the Asian College of Journalism: Is The New Indian Express justified in taking this issue to such lengths?
    My answer has been simple: Express has gone bonkers on this, lost its sense of balance. This was an issue that could have been sorted out very easily, but ham handedness of IIT-M management, coupled with an aggression on the part of Express totally disproportionate to the scale of the incident has really made a proverbial mountain out of the proverbial molehill.
    As a one who had been associated with The New Indian Express, and its earlier incarnation Indian Express, for more than a decade, I have been appalled by the intensity of the TNIE campaign against IIT-M. I hold no brief for the IIT faculty member who assaulted the photographer, but the photographs published by Express do suggest that the women students were uncomfortable being photographed. Stands to reason, if they objected or at least conveyed their objection through someone. It is an invasion of privacy.

    Reply
  5. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  August 28, 2012

    Arun, Vinodhini — thanks for the comments. Indeed, there is no doubt that the photos were not taken with the consent of the women in the photographs, and they look clearly uncomfortable. The next question is — what is editorial practice at TNIE (and other papers)? Well, clearly the current editors see nothing wrong in publishing (let alone taking) those pictures, but has this always been the editorial point of view?

    Reply
  6. raj sundar

     /  August 29, 2012

    What is the bottom line here? If I say I dont want my pic taken (assume I am not a celebrity or a public person like a minister, and not related to a crime – I am just a bystander) can a press photographer go ahead and take my pic? For women it a difficult situation – digital pictures can be morphed and used in pornographic websites – that is why they are careful of having their picture taken by strangers.

    Reply
  7. Polly

     /  August 29, 2012

    There’s another issue at hand here. The Actions of a few individials are being institutionalised and ‘IITM’ is said to have assaulted the photographer and filed all the subsequent cases. I dont see why this is necessary

    Reply
  8. Vinodhini

     /  August 30, 2012

    Rahul Siddarthan It is quite apparent from so many news coverages whether it is celebrity kids, any bystander, crime stories, the norm is that many news photographers do not have ethics (some might call it generalisation but it happens too often to ignore). Even when codified law says you cannot take the photo or publish the name or reveal the identity of a juvenile offender or victim it is not followed. It is the responsibility of both the bosses (read editors) and journalists (on the field) to follow the ethics and laws of the profession.

    Reply
  9. The report of IIT incident is as follows (taken form the release by IITM students, faculty and staff):

    “There was an unfortunate suicide by one of our women students on the afternoon of 21.8.2012. This took place in a hostel in the midst of residential buildings. Shortly after the police and media left having concluded their tasks, and the body was taken away, a press photographer sought permission and took pictures of the hostel building. Thereafter, he asked if he could take pictures of some of the women students standing nearby. He was asked not to do so, as the women were grieving. At this time,eight women students (hostel-mates of the deceased student), three student secretaries (including two women), five faculty members (wardens, including two women wardens) , four security personnel, and about a dozen onlookers from neighbouring buildings were present at the site.

    However, he took several close-up shots of the women students who were standing in a group along with their wardens. The women requested that the photographer desist and their photos be deleted. A woman warden requested him to do so, to no avail. He continued to take more close-ups; the women students felt harassed and protested, and the male student secretary then went to the photographer requesting him to desist and delete the photographs, again without success.

    At this point, the photographer prepared to leave. The Chairman of the Council of Wardens, who is a professor, held his camera to prevent him from leaving. The photographer resisted, tearing the professor’s shirt in the process and scratching him. The professor swayed his arms in self-defence, due to which the photographer also suffered a mild injury. The professor and photographer were quickly separated at this point.

    The photographer wished to lodge a complaint. He was shown the way to the Security Section on his bike by a security personnel.

    The complete incident as narrated here was witnessed by all the 20 plus students, staff and faculty and a number of onlookers as listed above.”

    It may be worthwhile for someone to verify the incident, if one doubts IIT statement. i ahve talked 10 of those twenty people.

    ashok Jhunjhunwala

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  August 30, 2012

      Thanks for the comment and the official IIT statement. I’ve put an update at the top of the blog post alerting readers to the comments by you, Vinodhini and Arun.

      Reply
  10. Vinodhini

     /  August 31, 2012

    Mr Jhunjhunwala’s statement seems believable. if there is another version I think Express should come forward with it. For even the most unbiased person, the act of the photographer is a violation pf privacy and unnecessary for the reporting of the news story also. I think Express lost an opportunity to set a positive example to other media institutions by not apologising for an act of its photographer.

    Reply
  11. vasudha

     /  September 1, 2012

    I will attempt to answer some of your questions and also state my opinions

    1) Why was a photographer sent?
    i think it is standard practice for photographers to be sent on most spot stories. One cannot predict what might become news when. Also when the news first came out, the reason for the suicide was unknown.
    During my 2 years as a journalist, I have seen both insensitive and sensible photographers and I agree that codes of conduct and practices must be evolved. But I wonder if this discussion on media ethics diverts attention from the fact that the professor punched a journalist. (btw I like how it has been termed ‘swayed his arms in self-defence in the comments section above. I was there at the police station later and the photographer’s wound did not seem like the result of ‘swaying arms’). Equally disconcerting is the fact that after the incident, he was led to the Ad block where he was locked up for quite a while.

    Now, IIT-M’s initial response was a plain apology. When it became evident that the case against the professor was not going to be withdrawn, within a matter of hours came a defiant version stating that there was nothing else the prof could have done.

    The Hindu’s report of that version is here
    http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/article3808644.ece

    This was the first mention of the the fact that the professor was also attacked. There was no mention of this when negotiations were on in the evening the incident occurred and even the next day. Later, a complaint of harassment of women was also filed (which was later withdrawn) . Incidentally, that version of the IIT’s statement has the reporter attempting to punch the professor a couple of times as opposed to the version in the comments section above where he scratched the prof.

    2) Why did the Express choose to publish those photos?
    I think the answer to that is very simple. The IIT administration kept going on about ‘objectionable’ pictures. So I suppose it would be an obvious step to publish them since no one was going to believe your denial anyway. Looking at the pictures, I can accept that a few of the 16 could have been irritating to the girls. The simplest solution concerned would have been to talk to the reporter concerned or his superior and tell him not to publish any pictures with faces, a request which I am sure the paper would have been happy to oblige (and NIE while publishing that story did not publish any picture with faces though later during the controversy, it unfortunately did). The IIT prof’s solution was to demand deletion of pictures and when refused, try to seize the camera, which is what led to the altercation.

    To repeat once again, I welcome this opportunity to debate media practices and evolve codes. But what about academic accountability? When people say they hold no brief for the professor and then move on to interrogating (perhaps justifiably) the media, I wonder if they stop for a moment and interrogate the roots of this issue in the institution too. My column was an attempt to do that. Also, if it was a prof from a State univ who had done this, would he have got away so easily?

    Also, I find it very problematic that protecting the dignity of women students specifically is used continuously. To me, it smacks of a bit of patriarchy.

    Reply
  12. arvi

     /  September 1, 2012

    It looks only the journalists believe the photographer’s version that the professor actually punched him. Any newspaper will carry out a crusade against anyone assaulting its journalists. Otherwise, there is no point in printing it. Again, as Vasudha said, the photographers are a different kind. They have ruffled and roughed up state ministers trying to take the pictures. It was competitiveness that would have prompted the express photographer to take the pictures of the grieving girls. What if TOI carries a picture tomorrow? That is in their mind. The learned professors at the institute should have contacted the express senior editorial staff and should have requested that the pictures need not be carried. Even otherwise, TNIE would not have published those pictures. I have worked there for twelve years. Why IIT-M should be ashamed of itself is its behaviour in the aftermath of the incidents. Counter complaints trying to frame the photographer instead of accepting the truth and apologising for it. If a professor has the courage to punch a news photographer cos he dint listen, what all things he is capable of doing to a doctoral student. Since I have covered higher education for a decade on and off, I know a bit about the culture of research in institutions. That is not the point here. The IIT-M was unhappy when the newspapers only carried the picture of their convocation. No newspaper carried the news. It was because what Nariman spoke on that day did not make any news sense. Bad or good, newspapers want news. At least now, institutes like IIT-M should think of preparing itself to face journalists whenever such incidents take place and depute sensitive professors on the spot. The express photographer did take the permission from the dean of students to take pictures. Other photographers also took pictures but chose not to publish it. Express published them just to prove that they were not objectionable and risked itself of being branded as insensitive to grieving girl students. They were forced to run this campaign against IIT-M. It is understandable if a mafia or politicians or some other ruffians attack journalists. Not learned men. If the professor had actually punched the photographer (which looks obvious), it is a shame on IIT-M. They should tender unconditional apology to express. Only then this issue will be solved. And, the photographer has the right to file a case against anyone assaulting him. If the IIT-M wants, it could file a case of tresspassing on campus and intrusion into privacy of its students. If the photographer can be illegally detained in a room for a while for taking pictures, the professor certainly needs to be legally locked up for asssaulting a photographer till he gets the bail. That is what the Express wants. That is why the crusade. The point is that no institute has the right to take law into its own hand. And actually punch journalists and get away with it. Students should realise that the media basically works in the interests of their freedom and they were there on that day not to just write a suicide story but to find out and know for themselves what’s wrong with premier institutes where students contiue to committ suicide. May be, like any other third rate institute, the IIT-M is also forcing its students to toe its line in the issue. The ethical debate on media can wait.

    Reply
  13. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  September 1, 2012

    Vasudha, Arvi — I do agree (and did already in my original blog post) that if the professor punched the photographer, that is not defensible. Now, what is your position on the allegation that the photographer first grabbed and tore the professor’s shirt? Do you condone it? Do you see it as a lesser offence? Do you deny thet it could have happened at all?

    I find the published photographs completely indefensible and I don’t think I am alone. Courtesy my wife, here’s an article on US federal guidelines on reporting caases of suicide, and here are the guidelines referred to. Key quote for your benefit:

    [Instead of this:] Including photos/videos of the location or method of death, grieving family, friends, memorial or funerals, [do this:] use school/work or family photo; include hotline logo or local crisis phone numbers.

    (There’s more — please read the whole thing, but this extract is so relevant they could have had this episode in mind.)

    Why these guidelines? Because insensitive reporting increases the risk of suicide, that’s why!

    Regarding the IITs, perhaps years of insensitive and irresponsible reporting of suicides have, at least partially, contributed to the problem. Have you ever thought of that? If not, please start thinking about it now.

    Arvi — yes, the press sometimes defends freedom (and I admit this is an important and necessary job). It does not mean everything the press does is a defence of freedom. You say, what if the TNIE photographer did not take the photos and the ToI published similar photos? The answer is, so freaking what? Is this sort of thing what you need to compete over?

    Vasudha — glad to hear you welcome a debate, but my blog is hardly the best orum for it. Perhaps your newspaper can take the lead. But anyway, thanks for the comment!

    Reply
  14. guru

     /  September 16, 2012

    Dear Rahul,
    These days newspapers and establishment only want their version to be put out at all cost. Why recently there was an accident involving a van carrying newsprint for Hindu which was involved in an accident (wherein a pregnant women was killed and her husband badly injured in NOIDA). This was reported in all delhi newspapers barring the Hindu which so much as did not even acknowledge any wrong doing. Needless to say the TOI and IE went ballistic with versions from family etc. in an attempt to sensationalize a terrible tragedy. Fortunately I read the hindi newspaper for that day and it reported the accident by saying that such a terrible tragedy occurred when a hindu paper van lost control and rammed into a stationary car killing a female co-passenger who was pregnant at that time . It mentioned that her husband was at the wheel at the time of this accident and that he is out of danger(no pictures were published for this in the hindi paper). I too would like to add a disclaimer here that I knew the couple so followed up on this in all the news portals and print media. Regarding the TNIE-IITM incident -I also believe the IIT/M version rather than the IE version as the said photographs clearly indicate that the photographer was not permitted to take a snap. When told to stop he should have stopped and promptly deleted the same from his camera (assuming that he only had digital pictures). As described by Arun -this is a case of a proverbial molehill being converted into a mountain of gigantic proportions and spread a hatred of a different kind.

    Reply
  15. Satheesh R.

     /  April 29, 2013

    What else can you expect from Indian Express? The paper lost all credibility in my eyes, when Shekhar “cuckoo” Gupta printed his infamous “Coup” story last year on the Indian Army. A cynical power broker, and little else. Unfortunate that this so called journalist was not roundly thrashed… at least then his FIR would have had some basis to it.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  April 29, 2013

      Er, wrong paper. The New Indian Express is a different paper, no connection with Shekhar Gupta.

      Reply
  16. Satheesh R.

     /  April 29, 2013

    Oh? My mistake, then. At any rate, no need for a journo to go barging in on an expression of mourning, and then fighting and tearing peoples clothes. NIE should have apologised. But the behaviour of the journalistic fraternity smacks of hubris, and power madness. Same thing happened when electronic media filmed NALSAR female students leaving a pub in Hyderabad sometime ago. They are regretting it now, because law students dont give in as quickly as IIT-M.

    Reply

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