Rejoinder by Saheli & WSS on the Story on Soni Sori by Indian Express

Original Indian Express Story on Aug 5th, 2012

“ANYTHING BUT THE TRUTH”

We are deeply shocked and dismayed at Ashutosh Bhardwaj’s (AB) report “Soni’s Story” published in the Sunday Express on 5th August.  The reporter has not bothered to cross-check any of the “facts” given to him by his unnamed sources, and relies entirely on innuendo and unproven assertions to discredit a woman who is currently imprisoned and in no position to clarify and defend herself.   AB employs dubious techniques to gain access to sensitive information, yet ends up completely missing out on the real story unfolding in Dantewada, where a dysfunctional criminal justice system, coupled with a vicious law enforcement machinery, is criminalizing an entire community and generation of adivasis.

Factual Inaccuracies

The reporter takes great pains to cast doubts over Soni Sori’s claims of custodial sexual torture at the hands of Chhattisgarh police.   And this is done without having talked to the victim herself.

1)      First, he suggests that the X-ray images taken in Chhattisgarh hospitals right after her torture show that there were no stones in her vagina or rectum.  It should be noted that the State of Chhattisgarh itself makes far more modest claims in its defense before the Supreme Court than these clumsy ones made by AB. Quoting the Head of the Radio-diagnosis of the Raipur Hospital where these tests were conducted, the State has admitted before the apex court that “In the CT scan, the vaginal part is not included…”  All the Chhattisgarh state has claimed in court is that “No foreign body is visible for the part of the rectum for which the CT scan was done.” [Annexure 5, Submission on behalf of the Respondent State of Chhattisgarh in Writ Petition 206 of 2011, Supreme Court of India].  Elementary knowledge of human anatomy would suffice to illustrate that CT spinal scans do not cover the majority of the rectum; they leave out the lower rectum.

2)      AB deliberately downplays the horror of the discovery of stones in Ms. Sori’s private parts by the NRS Hospital in Kolkata by suggesting that the report sent by the hospital, described as “four-page confidential report, a copy of which is with The Sunday Express,” does not confirm torture charges.  It may interest AB to know that hospital did not file a 4-page report, but a 39-page report, which was made available to Ms. Sori’s lawyers by the Supreme Court.  Which 4 pages of this report were read by AB is impossible to guess, but his conclusion that the hospital did not confirm the torture charges is absurd.  The medical board not only conducted a thorough gynecological and rectal examination – the first since Soni Sori was taken into police custody – but uncovered physical evidence in the form of stones from her private parts, which were physically sent to the Supreme Court along with the report.  Shoving of stones into one’s private parts may not conform to Mr. Bhardwaj’s definition of “torture”, but it does seem to satisfy the Supreme Court of India.

3)      Mr. Bhardwaj then seeks to discredit the Kolkata hospital’s report further by suggesting that even the Supreme Court entertains doubts about the accuracy of this report, and hence has ordered Soni Sori’s re-examination at AIIMS.  Again, if he had only bothered to read the Supreme Court order of 2nd May 2012, publicly available on its website, he would have easily learned that the examination and treatment at AIIMS was ordered by the apex court to provide Soni Sori with medical treatment that was deliberately being withheld from her by the Chhattisgarh authorities.  It was not at all to “re-examine” the torture evidence.  In any case, what medical evidence of torture does AB imagine would still be present in the body eight months after the incident?!   The problems of abnormal vaginal discharge and other associated gynecological, urological problems, raised by a private practitioner whom AB has talked to, which AB insinuates in his article as being mysteriously absent, have all been painstakingly documented before the Supreme Court, if only Mr. Bhardwaj had bothered to acquaint himself with the documents of this case. In fact, it was on the basis of these that urgent medical treatment was being repeatedly requested by Ms. Soni’s counsel in three different interim applications to the Supreme Court, and it is this prayer of Ms. Sori’s counsel which the Supreme Court answered in its May 2nd order.

4)      What is perhaps most distasteful in the report is the zeal with which AB attacks the authenticity of Soni’s letters from prison.  Again, he has no tangible argument to show any kind of discrepancy, and indeed, even the State of Chhattisgarh has not challenged the authenticity of these letters filed before the Supreme Court.  When AB confronts Soni herself with these letters, she also affirms that she is indeed sending them from prison.  Undeterred, AB tells the reader that he is unable confirm that these letters are indeed in Soni Sori’s handwriting, and he cannot find how they are being sent from prison. One wonders whether this has more to do with Mr. Bhardwaj’s competence as an investigative journalist, rather than the authenticity of letters.  For instance, did he try to get a handwriting sample of Soni to compare the various letters? Did he know that on 5/10/2011, the day after being arrested in Delhi, Soni Sori had submitted IN PERSON a handwritten letter to the Saket Courts, which is now an integral part of the court record and a public document, which can be easily used for the purpose of comparing handwritings? If AB had only bothered to do some primary research, maybe his investigative abilities would have improved dramatically.  Further, it is unclear why he expects either Soni or anyone else to give him specific information about how the letters are being sent to Delhi.  Does he not know what happened to Dr. Binayak Sen charged with similar allegations of carrying letters for an alleged Naxalite?

Questionable Ethics of this “Journalism of Courage”

It has been brought to our notice that in his zeal to find out how these letters are being sent from the prison, AB accosted her young children and badgered them to find out whether they could recognize Soni’s handwriting in the letters, whether Soni was passing off the letters to them when they visited her, and whether they knew how she was sending these letters to Delhi.  AB never once approached either Soni’s lawyers in Delhi, or any of the doctors who examined her, or the women’s rights and civil liberties activists, who he insinuates are “using her” (to what ends and purpose only he can shed light on). Instead, he tried to obtain sensitive information out of children, clearly violating all ethical boundaries of “investigative journalism”. Considering that the youngest of Soni’s children is only 6 years old, we strongly protest at this highly questionable and rather “courageous” way of trying to elicit information from children about their mother.

It is common knowledge that most instances of custodial torture, especially sexual torture, go unpunished and unrecorded simply because it is nearly impossible to establish the claims. This is what makes it all the more shameful for The Sunday Express to go out of its way to discredit the one solitary instance of brutal torture that has actually been corroborated by hard, incontrovertible medical evidence – by employing the dubious techniques of innuendos and mis-statement of facts.  By questioning the sexual torture claims, this report ends up giving credence to the similar line of arguments of the State.   Is it really that difficult for IE’s editors and journalists to understand why an imprisoned adivasi woman, from a conflict-ridden region, whose husband and nephew are also imprisoned by the police, and who has herself been threatened with even more dire consequences to her family, may take a few days to overcome her fear and the trauma of her brutal sexual torture, and only then be able to talk of the gory details?

(Ir)Responsible Journalism?

While appalling factual inaccuracies and selective presenting of pieces information does great damage to the reporter’s credibility, what is perhaps most worrisome and reprehensible in this story is the story he chooses to ignore, to not to report on.

AB mentions in an off-hand manner that there is evidence to show that neither Soni, nor her husband (who has been in jail for over two years now) were involved in the attack on Mr. Avadhesh Gautam’s house, in which both of them are charged.  He also reports that even the police admit that the other cases against Soni (eight of them altogether) are all false cases.  But then does not highlight or discuss the grave implications of this explosive piece of information.

He probably knows that the FIR lodged by Mr. Avadhesh Gautam after the attack on his house, in which he named Soni and her husband, also named 65 other adivasis of the local villages. As in the case of Soni and her husband, it is open knowledge in the villages that the other 65 names are also figments of someone’s overactive imagination.  Yet dozens of them continue to be in jail even today, as their trial drags on endlessly and they are unable to obtain bail.  But somehow, AB, in possession of all these facts, could not be bothered less in reporting on this epidemic of coerced criminality that seems to be sweeping across the adivasi belt.

AB also fails to inform the readers that in this case, the reason why so many adivasis are languishing in jail in an admittedly fabricated case is that for over a year Mr. Avadhesh Gautam, the main complainant, has not answered his summons to appear in court to give testimony.  For over a year, the court has been making (half-hearted) attempts to get him to come so that the trial can proceed. But for over a year, the deliverer of summons simply cannot find Avadhesh Gautam in the village. But Avadhesh Gautam is not in hiding– he lives in his house, attends to his business, everyone in the village knows his whereabouts, and even AB had no problem nailing him down for this story.  Only the court cannot seem to find him to deliver summons to him.

But this does not seem to bother Mr. Bhardwaj.  In his enthusiasm to get Mr. Gautam’s opinion on Ms. Sori’s character, he conveniently lays aside the *real* story–that so many adivasis continue to languish in jail for over two years simply because Mr Gautam cannot take the trouble to appear in the court to give his testimony, What makes Mr. Avadhesh Gautam, who has admittedly falsely implicated Soni and her family in a criminal case, the ideal person to provide insights into Ms. Soni’s condition escapes us. But what is even more distressing is that AB does not find it worthwhile to investigate why a whole generation of adivasis is being put behind bars on the basis of such false cases, why it is taking years and their entire family’s savings to get them out.  Instead, his way of “responsible journalism” leads him to cast aspersions and doubts on the custodial torture of one woman, who has dared to question this dismal state of affairs in a constitutional democracy, and on the concerns being raised by democratic rights activists.

Indira, Kalpana, Kavita S, NIdhi, Vani, on behalf of Saheli and WSS

11.08.12

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