Newswatch: Oswald Pereira on crime reporters and their tryst with the underworld

10 Jan,2012

By Oswald Pereira


There’s a world of a difference between the underworld in reel life and real life. Dons in reel life are most often glorified or caricatured beyond reality. But now it seems that impressionable young crime reporters and seasoned veterans too while reporting on the underworld have lost touch with reality.


The result: they tend to romanticise their role as crime reporters, assuming a larger-than-life persona for themselves; they are apparently taking more than necessary risks under the guise of investigative reporting.


It’s one thing to be a good investigative journalist; it’s another matter when a crime reporter foolhardily goes into the den of the underworld- virtually bang bang, with a pen against the guns of the mafia.


The fact that some young whiz kid journalists are editors hasn’t helped matters. In the good old days, a seasoned editor would caution and restrain over-enthusiastic reporters, but young editors lack that experience and maturity.


The consequences are there to see: The murder of a journalist and the arrest of another.


Could these have been avoided with more mature leadership or would it have been a different story if the journalists themselves had taken the necessary precautions and there was a system of checks and balances within the organisation?


There are no simple answers to these questions. But there is definitely need for some serious thinking on these issues.


I recall how during the communal riots in Mumbai in the 1980s, there was a fleet of ambassador cars that took us around to cover disturbances. We would inform the editor each time we went out. When the editor thought an incident was too dangerous to cover, he would restrain us. On one occasion, we sneaked out into a dangerous trouble spot in the dead of night out of sheer bravado, without informing the editor. But we had hell to pay when the editor learnt about it and the fact that we were real close to danger.


As a crime reporter, I myself did a fair bit of investigation, going out into the field, meeting the underworld and dons. But I always watched my step and kept my distance. I had realised then that to write the next story, you had to avoid putting your hand into the mouth of the lion.


Even in those days, there were some heady journalists who went about their job without a thought. I can still picture a trembling photo editor, surrounded by threatening members of a top underworld don. Instead of clicking a photograph or two and sneaking away, the photo editor had gone wild with excitement and clicked numerous photographs of the don being escorted down the steps of the court after attending a hearing of a case of extortion against him. This attracted the attention of the gang members and they threatened him with dire consequences. I had happened to know the don’s nephew, a college dropout, who spoke impeccable English. He was a contract killer and warned that he had already half a dozen murder cases against him; so one more wouldn’t make a difference. I intervened on the photo editor’s behalf. The nephew relented and let the photo editor off, only after a firm promise that no pictures would be printed in the next day’s newspaper. Quite interestingly, Mumbai crime branch officials were around, but they stepped in only later and one of them finally escorted the photo editor to his office, pillion-riding on his motorcycle.


My job as a crime reporter included taking down police remand notes from the courts to report in my newspaper. Sometimes, I would be tapped on the back and guys whose necks were as thick as my shoulder would mock, “Writing a story, ah, ah.” I would smile and they would say, “Good, good, continue working.” Sometimes, tough-looking guys with bloodshot eyes, working for some don or the other, would visit our office, after my newspaper published a big story that I had written, and casually announce, “Bhai, wants to see you.”


“Okay, I’ll come,” was my stock reply. Senior police officers too would drop hints or openly propose meetings with dons.


Crime reporters then-I’m talking about the 1980s- too had dangers and temptations. We also had plenty of inside stories on offer from the underworld. But personally, I considered it rather risky to write a story based entirely on information from the underworld, unless, of course, it was verified by official sources… but even if it was, one had to make doubly sure that the official didn’t have a motive themselves.


And journalists were sometimes the targets of the underworld. A crime journalist of a suburban newspaper was hacked by criminals. I pulled up the police commissioner of the area, who happened to be a good friend, and accused him of sleeping on the job. He retorted, “You guys are feasting on the job.”


“What do you mean?” I asked, angrily.

“The journalist used to extort money from the underworld, showing them the stuff that he was going to print the next day. So they put him to sleep,” he replied and laughed.


That was the case of a crime reporter who paid with his life for demanding a price, not once, but many times over for not printing stories. But there were other crime reporters whose lives were threatened for doing an honest job.


Among the various beats in a newspaper, reporters covering crime seem to be the most vulnerable to attacks. In the profession itself, crime reporters are not an envied lot. But it’s not a beat meant for the faint-hearted.


Personally, among the beats that I covered in newspapers and magazines-crime, politics, business-I found the crime beat the most challenging and interesting; even more satisfying and fulfilling than later senior writing and editorial positions and as editor of niche defence and infrastructure magazines.


But there was nothing romantic or glamorous about the beat; it was hard and difficult. I believed then, and still firmly believe, that the best way to survive as a crime reporter is to draw for yourself a Laxman Rekha… that you should not cross, come what way.


(The writer is the author of The Newsroom Mafia, currently among the top new releases nationwide recently published by Grey Oak Westland.)


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One response to “Newswatch: Oswald Pereira on crime reporters and their tryst with the underworld”

  1. Sunil Kumar Dogra says:

    Charmers and magicians are continuously casting magical spell from inside Rajasthan Police Force. I, my friends and relatives have been suffering for more than six years. Already reported the case with Delhi Police. What I believe is that they have murdered not only my maternal uncle (Nanaji), but many people nearby me. Please help me, I am in urgent need. Moola Ram is the name of person who is over there taking full advantage of Reserved Force from inside without caring for any legal proceeding and constitutional laws. What I believe is that they are looting people from here and grabbing lacs of money from them and have strong association with dacoits and murders. If you have any review, please revert to me with some help.

    Sunil Kumar Dogra

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