The infamous RSS pracharak Modi, now Chief Minister of Gujarat, tried to ban the telecast of NDTV made news reports done by Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt. He also accused media of defaming his government. This piece was written in response to Modi's tirade.
The messenger has been shot yet again. Kargil, Kandahar and now Gujarat: the media, and more specifically 24-hour news networks, have become target practice for a government seeking to cover-up its own ineptitude. In Kargil, the media was accused of breaching national security even while the obvious intelligence failure on part of the military apparatus was hidden away in bureaucratic files. In Kandahar, the media was charged with placing undue pressure on the government to negotiate with the hijackers even though not one channel had even remotely suggested that the external affairs minister should take along Masood Azhar as a travel companion on a flight to Afghanistan. And now in Gujarat, the accusation is of ‘inflaming communal passions’ when the fact is that the flames of communal hatred have been stoked by a mob, a section of which at least has been patronised by the ruling establishment in Gandhinagar.
The government alleged that news networks kept showing visuals of the carnage, thus inciting violence. Does anyone seriously believe that telecasting of burning shops and houses motivates people to immediately rush out? The mob determines the pace of events, not the channels reporting them
Was it the media that provoked the horrific violence at Godhra’s railway station? Was it the media that called for a 24-hour Gujarat bandh the next day that saw the violence spiral out of control? Did the media ask people to come out on the streets and ransack shops and business establishments belonging to one community? The pogroms that were committed in Ahmedabad, Vadodara and other parts of the state were surely not sanctioned by the media.
The government chargesheet against the news networks is that we kept showing visuals of the carnage, and in the process incited violence. But does anyone seriously believe that the telecasting of burning shops and houses motivates people to immediately rush out and start a fire? After all, it was the mob that was determining the pace of events, and not the channels who were merely reporting what was happening on the ground. Since post-September 13 our government ministers see the American media as the barometer for ‘television ethics’, and have often castigated the Gujarat coverage by comparing in with ‘responsible’ networks in the US. In that case, they might well wish to see the network coverage of the Los Angeles racial riots a decade ago when the channels kept showing the Rodney King assault incident that sparked off the violence.
The flip side of the government argument would be that the television channels should have been restrained to the point of virtually blanking out the mob frenzy, and instead stated that the government was firmly in control of events. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, especially in the first 48 hours of chaos. To indicate, for example, that the police was simply not acting against the law-breakers could hardly be seen as ‘demoralising’ the police force, but only emphasising the fact that the mob on the streets was being allowed to get away with their actions.
Again, if any reporter, whether print or television, sees large-scale violence being committed, is the journalist to ignore the hard reality and merely present the facts as seen through government binoculars? If the chief minister says that the situation is returning to normalcy even while reports are streaming in of continuing violence in several parts of the state, are not the lies to be exposed? And if the government insists that the army is out on the street when the fact is that the army has been kept on stand-by and is waiting for transport trucks, whose version is to be broadcast?
The government chargesheet also says that television reporters were often using words like ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’, and thereby further vitiating the atmosphere. It is apparently a long-established tradition that communities will not be named in riot situations. Instead, we are told, that ‘group clashes’ or terms like ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ community should be used to describe the violence. No one is quite sure who initiated this practice, but once again it does seem a bit like obfuscation, and an attempt to inject a false blandness to the harsh and grim reality of a communal riot. If the shop of a Bohra Muslim has been attacked, should that be disguised by suggesting that a shop belonging to a ‘a member of a minority within the minority community’ was attacked?
The more serious accusation against the media is that we were somehow biased against the state government in particular, and in the process against Hindus in general. It’s a charge that has been repeatedly made over the years by the Sangh Parivar, especially against the English-speaking media, both print and television. By attempting to pigeonhole a section of the media as the so-called ‘secular Taliban’, the aim appears to be to create a divide between the Hindutva patriots versus the anti-national pseudo-secularists. This divide has been at the heart of the Sangh Parivar’s propaganda campaign.
The sheer viciousness of the campaign has pushed the media on the defensive, and perhaps made some of us even more conscious of the need to be even-handed at all times. In Gujarat, for example, no one has shied away from emphasising that local Muslim leaders in Godhra were involved in the train tragedy. At the same time, the fact is that VHP and Bajrang Dal activists were leading mobs in several areas where some of the worst attacks took place. The chief minister may have tried to push the Newtonian law by saying that every action invites a reaction, but for the media such comments only expose the state’s rather shameful attempt at rationalising the violence. The charge of bias should not lie at the door of the media but at the gates of Gandhinagar, where the political leadership has ridden the back of the VHP-Bajrang Dal tiger for much too long to now quickly climb off.
This does not mean that the media does not need to introspect. High drama — war, violence, terror — is staple diet for the 24-hour news channel. Such is the nature of the beast that the powerful images that are captured on film in a riot situation can make for gripping viewing. In such situations journalism can become a glamourous performance and can blur the essence of a report. This is a serious danger. The ‘tabloidisation’ of the medium is grave concern, and makes some element of self-censorship essential.
But as news networks evolve, so must the government’s response to the new media revolution. This is the first government in the country that has to deal with 24 hour news channels. In Gujarat the absence of credible information being provided on a regular basis by the government was once again glaring.
In America, for example, the state has perfected the art of using the media’s reach and power to try and defuse crisis situations. Here, the attitude on the other hand is to ration information and then to question the credentials of those who try to go beyond administrative platitudes. Ironically, Narendra Modi is supposed to be one of the country’s most media-savvy politicians who even did a course in New York on media management. Maybe, he needs to go in for a refresher before he begins issuing diktats banning television coverage.
(The writer is political editor, New Delhi Television)