Journalist | Writer | Analyst
I have written to the jury which gave the Indian News Broadcasting Award for News Reporter of the Year 2010, Hindi, to Neeta Sharma of NDTV India, protesting their choice.
Neeta Sharma was the reporter who wrote a false story in the Hindustan Times in 2002 calling Iftikhar Gilani, a senior and respected journalist who is the Delhi bureau chief of Kashmir Times, an ISI agent. Her story, which was based on a plant by police and intelligence officials, contributed to Iftikhar’s incarceration and caused him no end of trouble, especially with violent inmates and jailors at Tihar. As a reporter, she has never apologised for her story. Until she does so, I consider her a blight on my profession. I am sickened by the thought that such a person could have received an award for her so-called reporting. My letter — and all the details of that sordid incident — is appended below …
Dear Vinod [Mehta] and other jury members,
You were part of a jury that recently gave Neeta Sharma of NDTV India a ‘reporter of the year’ award.
While I am not familiar with her work on TV, her earlier work as a reporter for HT was reprehensible. Indeed, I have no hesitation in saying she was a blot on the profession of journalism. And that until she makes amends by tendering an unqualified apology to the biggest victim of her unprofessionalism — Iftikhar Gilani — she ought to be considered beyond the pale.
While at the HT, she was an accomplice in the police attempt to frame Iftikhar Gilani, the respected bureau chief of Kashmir Times on false charges. I have recorded the issue and circumstances of Neeta Sharma’s unethical behaviour in my Introduction to Gilani’s book, My Days in Prison, which was published by Penguin in 2005:
Since the DGMI ‘opinion’ made no reference to the published document, Iftikhar’s counsel tried in vain to have the courts take cognisance of it and demand that the military provide a second opinion expeditiously. Here, the case hit its third and fourth roadblocks, which was the timorousness of the lower judiciary and media in matters ostensibly relating to national security and official secrets. What was surprising was that despite the alacrity of the courts in filing contempt proceedings against those who try to manipulate the course of justice by misreporting or misrepresenting what transpires during a hearing, the concerned judge took no action against a wholly fabricated news report which appeared in a national daily the first time Iftikhar was produced in court: “In the course of hearing on Monday, Geelani (sic) reportedly said he had been passing on classified information about the movement of Indian troops to the ISI. When chief metropolitan magistrate Sangita Sehgal asked him if she should record this in his statement, Geelani nodded in assent.” The news was false and amounted to contempt of court. Yet, no action was taken.
As for the gullible crime reporter who was fed this story by the Delhi Police Special Cell, no apology was ever made. I happened to be introduced to the reporter in question at a colleague’s wedding in 2004 and when I said I had a bone to pick with her because of the hit-job she had done on Iftikhar Gilani, she said, “I don’t know any Iftikhar Gilani”. I was angry but decided to give her a bit of advice: “The police officials who used you to plant that story have escaped with their reputations intact. But what you did will remain a blot on your reputation as a journalist so long as you don’t apologise to Iftikhar”.
Neeta Sharma’s story was important to the police because it appeared just at a time when a petition drafted by Aunohita Mojumdar and other journalists and friends of Iftikhar was gathering steam. A brief report about the campaign had appeared in The Times of India on June 10 and the police and IB quickly realised the need to nip any journalistic acts of solidarity in the bud. Editors could be leaned upon (and they were) but there was no better deterrent to the campaigning spirit than a concocted confession by Iftikhar that he had been an ISI agent all along. Soon, the floodgates opened and any number of malicious reports appeared across much of the Indian media accusing Iftikhar of being a traitor and militant, smuggler and jihadi, a sex fiend and “spy claiming the privileges of a newsman”, in the libellous words of the Bharatiya Janata Party MP and one-time journalist, Balbir K. Punj.
 Neeta Sharma, ‘Iftikar Geelani admits ISI links’, Hindustan Times, June 11, 2002  Balbir K. Punj, ‘Dissimulation in words and in images’, Outlook, July 8, 2002
Iftikhar has also spoken about this in interviews and elsewhere:
But what really affected my family and me most was a was a four column story printed in Hindustan Times on June 11 saying I was an ISI agent. It was a by-lined report by Neeta Sharma. Surprisingly, the reporter quoted me saying that I had confessed to being an agent, and to my illegal activities when I was appearing at one of the hearings at the sessions court. Later a police official asked me whether I had spoken to any reporter which I had denied.
This really hurt my family and me. The next day my wife went to speak and complain to Shobhana Bhartia, Executive and Editorial Director of HT and told her all this was untrue and they should print an apology which the paper did.
Elsewhere, he has written about the same incident:
The mother of all mischievous reports about me was by a Neeta Sharma, crime
reporter of the Hindustan Times and now with the NDTV. She reported that I had admitted before the court to having ISI links. The report said, “Iftikhar Gilani, 35 year old son-in-law of Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, is believed to have admitted in a city court that he was an agent of Pakistan’s spy agency”. She went even further, and reported that Syed Ali Geelani was so happy with Iftikhar’s working with the ISI that he gave his daughter to him in marriage. What a ridiculous report! Thanks to friends in the Hindustan Times, and its Deputy Chairperson Shobna Bharatiya, the paper corrected itself.
Not surprisingly, Iftikhar has criticised the decision to give Neeta Sharma an award despite her failure to acknowledge her mistake and her failure to apologise for the unsavoury incident:
As a colleague and friend of Iftikhar, and as the author of the Introduction to his book, I have no hesitation in also expressing my unhappiness at her selection.
I hope that even at this late stage, you as jury members can either find a way to withdraw this award or at least shame Neeta Sharma into acknowledging that the basic code of a good reporter involves respecting the truth and having the decency to say sorry when you make a grave mistake.