News organisations have been known to fall for fake news, particularly considering the sophistication of disinformation and propaganda that is being spread these days. But why would a newspaper choose to publish material that it knows and declares to be false? That is the question being asked of the Sunday Guardian, an Indian weekly that carried an article that the newspaper itself admitted was “concocted” about the Kathua rape case, in which an eight-year-old girl was allegedly abducted, repeatedly raped and murdered in January in a village in Jammu.

An article carried in this weekend’s issue, as well as online, sought to raise a number of questions about the specifics of the Kathua case, attempting to sow the seeds of doubt regarding a number of details. But the article also came with two very prominent caveats. One, it was listed under the label of “Fake News” despite appearing in the “Comment and Analysis” section. More disturbingly, the headline including an asterisk, leading to a disclaimer at the bottom, that said, “This article is a pure concoction based on fiction. Any resemblance with any character or event is unintentional and coincidental.”

Update: MD Nalapat, the Editorial Director of the Sunday Guardian responded to Scroll.in’s questions about the piece, insisting that it was “published it entirely as fiction. Where is the question of authentication of a concoction.” His full answers have been reproduced below.

Despite the disclaimer, the article nevertheless lists out the names of the real-life people involved in the Kathua case, from the investigating officers to Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and others. It even names the victim in the case, despite the Delhi High Court having issued notice last week to media houses that had done so. Going even further, by way of attempting to draw an equivalence, the article even seems to name the minor victim of another alleged sexual assault, and mistakenly claims that she was both raped and murdered, even though news reports suggest that the victim is still alive.

Though it disavows the accuracy of its report, the piece includes many specifics about the case, but adds in a number of fictions as well. For example, it suggests that the parents of the Kathua case victim had earlier been murdered – a suggestion that has prompted some to put forward conspiracy theories that this is not a communal issue. However, her parents, both birth and adoptive, are alive and have even spoken to the media.

Similarly the piece attempts to claim that the case was made out to be one of sexual assault even though there was no proof of rape. This was published, despite the chargesheet clearly saying “as per the report of medical experts, the victim was found prima facie raped before being killed.”

Naturally, the cavalier attitude taken towards a heinous crime as well as the newspaper’s disclaimer raised many eyebrows online.

Update: MD Nalapat, the editorial director of the Sunday Guardian responded to questions from Scroll.in on Tuesday evening. The answers in full are below:

  • Why did the Sunday Guardian publish a piece, using real names and references to an actual incident, under the tag of “fake news”?
    Nalapat: “Satire is often used together with “real names” but here it  it was made clear it was fiction and a concoction. Fake news when passed off as true is certainly worrisome but when explicitly presented as such, the same judgment would be too harsh.”
  • Is it the Sunday Guardian’s policy to publish “pure concoction based on fiction” on the “Comment & Analysis” pages?
    Nalapat: “According to the Editor, the placing of stories depends on space at the time the story comes in within the context of the material in the overall edition. Where else should it have been put? There is no Fiction page.” 
  • The Delhi High Court has been critical of media naming the victim in the Kathua case. Even if labelled under “fake news”, does the Sunday Guardian stand by the decision to include the eight-year-old’s name in the piece?
    Nalapath “It is unfortunate tjat many outlets have ignored advice to avoid use of such names. However,such keeping away of such details should not be embedded in law but convention. Media in India is a work in progress, as is the country as a whole.”
  • The piece similarly names another rape victim from Nagrota, and erroneously suggests that she was murdered. Does the paper stand by its decision to publish this? 
    Nalapat:I am not aware of this case but please remember the whole of the contribution is fiction and hence so is the allegation made in the concoction.”
  • A number of details in the piece seem to actually be fiction: the murder of the victim’s parents,the lack of evidence of sexual abuse etc. Does the paper stand by these claims?
    Nalapat: “We published it entirely as fiction. Where is the question of authentication of a concoction ? However, let me say that I stand by the right of individuals ( including Sushil Pandit) to publish fiction , if they explicitly declare the item to be Fake News, as has been done in this instance.”
  • The chargesheet, for example, clearly mentions prima facie medical evidence regarding sexual abuse. Will the paper be adding a clarification to this piece?
    Nalapat: “Why do you ignore the  reality of it being a concoction and implicitly accuse TSG of misleading the reader ? The publication gave a clear disclaimer ,yet this seems to have been brushed aside in several comments.” 
  • Do you believe fake news is a problem that the media has to contend with, whether on news or opinion pages?
    Nalapat: “Allow me to say that I have encountered quite a few examples of fake news presented as truth. I am glad that online media in particular is relentless in questioning each item. In this instance , those responsible took the view that Mr Pandit had the right to try his hand at fiction. Leeway in matters of freedom of expression is preferable to choking off views different from that held by the editors. TSG often carries views with which I disagree totally and the Editor has the right to ensure that the publication is not an echo chamber of the Editorial Director.”