Confusion worse confounded

- August 22, 2020
| By : Prateek Goyal |

How Republic passed off a muddle of contradictions as ‘news’ about Disha Salian’s death The front page of the Indian Express had a short piece on August 13 on how after questioning actor Rhea Chakraborty for almost 18 hours, the Enforcement Directorate did not find “any substantial transfers” to her from the bank account of actor Sushant Singh […]

How Republic passed off a muddle of contradictions as ‘news’ about Disha Salian’s death

The front page of the Indian Express had a short piece on August 13 on how after questioning actor Rhea Chakraborty for almost 18 hours, the Enforcement Directorate did not find “any substantial transfers” to her from the bank account of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

To anyone who’s been tracking the media circus following Rajput’s death in June, the story follows weeks of allegations against Chakraborty, who used to date Rajput. She was painted as a “gold digger” who practised “black magic”, and TV news channels produced “incriminating evidence” of “huge transactions” made by Rajput for Chakraborty, and proposed “an alleged money laundering angle” — which is what the ED had stepped in to investigate.

But Chakraborty was not their only target.

As part of this “sensational case”, news channels also pinpointed the death of Disha Salian, 28. Salian briefly worked with Rajput and died less than a week before he did. Media reports suggested that the two deaths were connected, and even that both Rajput and Salian had been murdered, though both their postmortem reports had ruled that out.

Speculation around Salian’s death has been repellent: that she attended a party that was attended by high-profile figures like Shiv Sena leader Aditya Thackeray, that she was raped and her dead body was found naked. Media coverage had no space for caution or even basic consideration for the grieving families.

But where did these stories come from? Did TV channels make an effort to verify “social media claims” that they picked up and broadcast as facts?

Newslaundry looked at one such series of speculations, which stemmed from a man named Prashant Kumar, 25. A self-proclaimed activist, Kumar spouted a series of allegations based on phone calls he purportedly had with Salian’s friend. Republic TV gave Kumar a platform for his pronouncements while Times Now ran stories on similar lines to his claims.

But Newslaundry’s own conversations with Kumar and an investigation into his claims revealed a story that’s riddled with contradictions.

Prashant Kumar’s claims

Kumar is an alumnus of Patna’s National Institute of Fashion Technology. He claims to have worked as an “activist” since 2017, on issues like education, animal rights, and child rights. On June 17, he started a social media campaign called “InsaafSSR” to investigate Rajput’s death, telling Newslaundry that “many murders have been shelved in the guise of suicide”.

On July 13, Kumar wrote a detailed Facebook post on how Salian was invited for a party on June 8 by actor Suraj Pancholi. There was preexisting “tension” between Salian and Pancholi, Kumar wrote in Hindi, but she went for the party at 8 pm. It was attended by Pancholi, fellow actors Siddharth Pithani and Arbaaz Khan, Aditya Thackeray, Rhea Chakraborty’s brother Shauvik, and Rajput’s friend Sandeep Singh.

Notably, Kumar added a disclaimer that this might be “factual or fictional”.

“These people on the same day raped Disha and then threw her out from the 14th floor so that nobody would know it,” Kumar wrote. “But between this, Disha got some time…so she managed to call up Sushant and inform him about her plight, but she couldn’t escape from the hands of these animals.”

According to Kumar, Sandeep Singh then telephoned Rajput and told him Disha was dead. “These animals” then began “threatening” Rajput. In a complicated series of events, Kumar said Chakraborty told Rajput to “keep his mouth shut”, that Sandeep Singh turned out to be a “two-faced snake”, and Chakraborty’s “old boyfriend Mahesh Bhatt” told her that there were plans to murder Rajput.

Kumar appeared on Republic on August 3,where he cited the “friend” as his source, and said he had got “one of the top three international investigating agencies” to look into the matter. Republic called it #SushantCoverUp, a “mega sting”, “Arnab back with fresh evidence”.

Introducing Kumar as a Patna-based activist running the InsaafSSR campaign, anchor Arnab Goswami said, “In these times, there is a restriction on all of us, which will go away with time when everything will come out in the open. But as of now, you can say whatever information you have without taking names.”

Once Kumar summarised the contents of his Facebook post, Goswami called it an “important revelation”. “There is an alleged presence of politicians and Bollywood personalities at that party which Disha attended. And I’d like to add that [there are] corroborative testimonies,” he said. “A member close to the family said Sushant was very disturbed and completely changed after hearing about Disha’s death. More than that, he felt that there was a threat to his life. Beyond that, we also have another testimony — that he wanted to have a press conference to expose what happened to Disha.”

He added that whenever he links the two deaths, the Mumbai police commissioner “goes crazy”.

Times Now’s show on August 4 had anchor Rahul Shivshankar saying that the channel “does not believe Rajput died accidentally”. “None of this is credible. Nothing accidental about Sushant Singh Rajput’s death,” he said.

But when Newslaundry spoke to Kumar, he gave several versions of his story.

Who was Kumar’s source?

Kumar said he received a phone call on the afternoon of July 13 from a man who introduced himself as Salian’s friend. The caller then gave him all the details that he included in his Facebook post.

How did he verify who the caller was and whether he was correct in naming people like Thackery and Pancholi as being involved in Sulian’s death?

“I don’t know whether the caller was sure of these names or not. Maybe he received this input from somewhere else. Or maybe he wanted to inform me about the truth, and that’s why he called me,” Kumar told Newslaundry. “That person didn’t want to reveal his identity, although he assured me that he would let me know later. His name started with the letter ‘S’.”

Kumar said he didn’t have the caller’s phone number as it was an internet call, or a recording of the conversation.

In complete contradiction to this, when someone commented on his Facebook post asking where the information was from, Kumar replied: “A writer from Gujarat has…the content on the basis of some evidence and some opinions, and that’s why I have written the above post. Maybe something like this has happened.”

So, who was the source: Salian’s friend or a “writer from Gujarat”?

The facts, according to police and family

Disha Salian died on June 9. She fell from the 14th floor of a building in Jankalyan Nagar, Malvani in Mumbai’s Malad West. A case of accidental death was registered by the Malvani police, but the investigation is ongoing.

Salian was in a flat on the 14th floor at the time. The flat agreement had recently been finalised by her fiancé Rohan Roy. At the time of her death, she was with Roy and four friends – Resha Padwal, Indraneel Vaidya, Deepa Ajmera, and Himanshu Shikhare.

She was not at a party attended by filmstars or politicians. This was reiterated by Salian’s mother, who told India Today that Salian had been home with Roy and their friends. “All in media, social media, YouTube and all others, everything is false. All theories and stories are fake and just rumours,” the mother said. “I lost my only child but now all these media people, social media people will murder us.”

Salian’s father told India Today in the same interview that his daughter’s postmortem report proved she had not been raped. Newslaundry confirmed from the postmortem report, which was carried out at Bhagwati hospital in Borivali on June 11.

Newslaundry was unable to reach Salian’s parents for comment. Vishal Thakur, the deputy commissioner of Zone 11 of the Mumbai police, said, “Our investigation is under process and we will reveal the details once it’s done.”

Meanwhile, a family begs for peace

As this grotesque sequence of events played out on TV screens and social media, Salian’s father Satish wrote a letter in early August to the assistant commissioner of police of the Malvani division. He wrote that he had already submitted a complaint on July 13 about “derogatory posts” leading to the “defamation” of his daughter and his family.

“I would like to bring to your attention the atrocities of journalists and media people on my family,” he wrote. “They are providing the media with misleading news which are not only creating hindrance to the actual inquiry being conducted, but it’s also taking a toll on my family.

“News about her involvement with any politician or attending parties with big names of film fraternity, rape, murder are all the stories cooked by these media people just to sell it to channels. These stories hold no truth. These are misleading the people and tarnishing my daughter’s reputation and my family’s reputation. These fake news are taking a huge toll on my family’s health and we are being victimized by the media.”

(Newslaundry reached out to Republic for comment. This piece will be updated if a response is received).