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Media: Bashed from Outside and Flawed from Within

The "vibrant" Indian media is under siege on all sides. Powerful politicians use mobs to browbeat independent outlets; the state manipulates the media to plant information through journalists innocent of the basic norms of reporting and media owners prioritise their commercial interests over everything else. A number of examples in recent months from around the country highlight the ugly trends.

COMMENTARYaugust 2, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly10Media: Bashed from Outside and Flawed from Within Sumanta BanerjeeThe “vibrant” Indian media is under siege on all sides. Powerful politicians use mobs to browbeat independent outlets; the state manipulates the media to plant information through journalists innocent of the basic norms of reporting and media owners prioritise their commercial interests over everything else. A number of examples in recent months from around the country highlight the ugly trends.Lost behind the media hype over the nuclear deal and the future of the United Progressive Alliance govern-ment are certain disturbing developments that have taken place in the Indian media scene during the recent period. They expose both the external threat and the internal deficit faced by the Fourth Estate, and once again prove that news dissemi-nation in India is either disrupted or dis-torted by a process which interlocks the interests of a variety of pressure groups – powerful politicians who can whip up mob frenzy to browbeat newspapers, media owners who prioritise their commercial stakes over the free flow of information, and a new breed of careerist journalists under their employ who are totally innocent of the basic norms of the profes-sion or the ethics of reporting. The external threat is posed by both the state and the non-state agencies who con-nive in one way or another, as evident from a few recent cases. On May 26, activists of the Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti (MRPS), an organisation of the backward classes and dalits, attacked and set fire to the office of a leading Telugu daily Andhra Jyothi in Hyderabad, protesting against an article which was considered by them as an insult to their leaders. Soon after, the employees of the affected newspaper, including its editor and two reporters, took out a rally where they were alleged to have thrown chappals at the effigy of an MRPS leader. It snowballed into a political con-frontation when following a complaint by the pro-ruling party MRPS against Andhra Jyothi (which is known to be critical of the Congress chief minister), the police swooped down on the paper’s office on June 24 and arrested the editor and two reporters of the paper, charging them under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act – for insulting the effigy of a dalit. Since all political party activists regu-larly burn and kick at effigies depicting rival leaders from all castes and creed, without being hauled up by the police, there are enough reasons for suspecting that the Congress-ruled state government was using the police to settle scores with a newspaper that was critical of it. The next case is from Maharashtra, where early in June, goons of a Hindutva outfit led by a politician (who ironically enough belonged to the Nationalist Con-gress Party, a coalition partner of the ruling Congress in the state), attacked the residence of the editor of Loksatta’s Mumbai edition, because he wrote a sar-castic piece where he expressed the hope that all the problems of Maharashtra would be solved once the much-hyped mammoth statue of Shivaji, as proposed by the government, was set up in mid-ocean! The humour would have gone over the moronic heads of the saffronite hood-lums who rule the streets of Mumbai but for those among their patrons who were slightly quicker on the uptake and sus-pected that the article did not sound right. They set the hoodlums on the editor. Among the non-Congress ruled states, while in Narendra Modi’s Ahmedabad the police have registered cases against the resident editor of the Times of India, in Left Front-ruled Kerala, musclemen of the Students Federation of India (the SFI, an outfit of the ruling CPI-M) attacked jour-nalists of the Malayala Manorama group in Kottayam. Insularity, Intolerance and IntimidationAll these incidents betray certain alarm-ing proclivities among sections of Indian civil society which lend themselves to manipulation by vested political interests, and encourage a sort of social sanction of suppression of freedom of press and right of dissent. The Kerala incident in particu-lar highlights the growing trend of intoler-ance of dissent among both the Left and the Right. More importantly, it unfolds the orchestrated attempt by the orthodox sec-tions of society to subvert scientific inquiry in education, and by political powers to muzzle the press. Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban@yahoo.com) is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW august 2, 200811It all started with a lesson in a school textbook for class VII in Kerala, where parents (of an interreligious marriage) are shown refusing to specify the caste and the religious denomination of their child during admission, adding that when the child grows up he can choose his religion. Nothing wrong! But all hell broke loose, with zealots from all the religious estab-lishments – the Christian church, the major Muslim groups, and the Hindu Nair Service Society – objecting to the lesson and uniting in a violent agitation against the state’s Left Democratic Front govern-ment. The Congress Party, shedding its secular credentials, jumped on the band-wagon, and led protest demonstrations. In response to such rallies, the ruling CPI-M displayed an equally intolerant and irre-sponsible attitude. In Kottayam, its stu-dents wing (SFI) organised a march against their opponents, in the course of which they attacked a Youth Congress leader. To prevent the Malayala Mano-rama team (which happened to be there to cover the SFI march) from reporting and photographing their misdeed, they pounced upon and seriously injured its three journalists. Sad to say, by their show of muscle power, the CPI-M students have damaged the very cause of developing sci-entific temper, humanism, spirit of inquiry and reform (a fundamental duty under the Constitution) that was sought to be upheld by their own government in the school textbook. In such petulant exhibitions of reprisal and violent intimidation against the media, theCPI-M is fast resembling the Right-wing parties like the Shiv Sena, and the chauvinist regional outfits like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) (which has a long history of threatening and killing journalists who dare to defy its diktats). In West Bengal, during the recent agitation over the Nandigram issue, the CPI-M cadres threatened journalists who dared to write against their party. They were, in fact, encouraged by their own chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who on one occasion publicly warned journalists who were critical of his poli-cies. The political opponents of the CPI-M too are no less violent against journalists who expose their misdeeds. During the Nandigram agitation, thugs of the Trinamool Congress that led it (who were as well-armed as their counterparts in the CPI-M), attacked and seriously injured reporters of a BengaliTV channel who were accused by them of portraying the Trinamool in a bad light.Brotherhood of Reporters, Cops and Sleuths But when condemning the physical vio-lence perpetrated on media functionaries by a vengeful state and insular bigots of various political and religious hues, we cannot also ignore how media functionar-ies themselves indulge in verbal and visual assault on the privacy and human values of citizens in as barbaric a manner as those who bash them up. The employees of the Indian corporate print and television media (led by their editors, who have sac-rificed their independence to toe the line of US-sponsored neoliberalism which is advocated by their bosses) smoothly step into the role of the American tabloid press reporters. Like them, they serve the neo-liberal cause by depoliticising the public with an overwhelmingly heavy-smelling bouquet of titillating scandals on the one hand, and by simultaneously socialising them to a state of official surveillance on the other by frightening them with hair-raising stories of terrorist plots that are served up by the American Central Intelligence Agency, or the indigenous Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). India’s media, police and intelligence agencies – agents of the same ruling pow-ers – thus share the common monomania for the sensational.A few examples from the recent past expose the national media’s obsession with spine-chilling excitement and blood and thunder incitement – without the pro-fessional obligation to check out the facts. More importantly, they betray their utter irresponsibility and insensitivity in brand-ing innocent individuals with the tar and feather provided by a congenitally vindic-tive and professionally unreliable Indian police force. Fast on the heels of the lurid headlines about the rape and murder of the British teenager Scarlett in Goa (where the newspapers, prodded by the police, blamed her mother for allowing the girl to move on her own), there came two more incidents where the mainstream press and television channels resorted to the same method of “trial by media”. They passed judgments on innocent people by swal-lowing down without batting an eyelid any mouth-watering story fed by sexually perverse police officials. In the case of the murder of Aarushi Talwar in Noida in the capital, a senior police officer came out with all sorts of insidious hints about an adulterous relationship implicating the girl’s father (who had to suffer humiliation and incarceration for about two months, before being cleared by the CBI) – hints which were avidly picked up by a rapa-cious media and broadcast all over the country. Sometime before this, in Febru-ary, a Delhi University student Aniruddh Rawat and his friend Sneha Kapoor were killed when the car in which they were travelling (driven by someone else) crashed against a tree near India Gate in Delhi. Here again, an important official of the Delhi police circulated the story that the victims were drunk (implying thereby that they themselves were to be blamed), and the ever-obedient mainstream press immediately went to town with the report that the students were high on a cocktail of booze and speed. After five months of desperate efforts by their parents to defend their children against the police-sponsored character assassination, the autopsy report released in July confirmed that there was no trace of alcohol in their bodies. It was shameful that none of the capital’s national newspapers had the decency to acknowledge their error and directly apo-logise to the parents for maligning their children in death. The Talwar family of Noida, as well as the parents of Aniruddh Rawat and Sneha Kapoor, have justifiable grounds for moving the courts to seek punishment of the culpable police offi-cials, and for approaching the Press Coun-cil to take appropriate action against the newspapers which were responsible for propagating the scurrilous reports. Manufacturing ‘Islamic Terrorists’ The Indian media, in their morbid obses-sion with violence, and the accompanying paranoia against anyone branded as a sus-pect by the police, display a special pro-pensity in going overboard whenever
COMMENTARYaugust 2, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly12there are bomb blasts or terrorist attacks anywhere. Fed by the intelligence agen-cies, they rush headlong in publishing sto-ries about the arrest of “dreaded terror-ists” (who after months or even years of incarceration, finally turn out to be inno-cent people who were hauled up on mere suspicion, or due to vindictiveness of some policeman and acquitted by the courts). By crying wolf one too many times, both the press and the television are fast losing credibility and undermining public faith in their professional capacity to investi-gate into the basic sources of a really serious threat – the spread of terrorism of various hues (whether the Islamic jehadist organisations, or the Hindu variants of ULFA and Bajrang Dal, or the mutually fighting ethnic groups in the north-east). Do the media practitioners realise that in the process, they are reducing the danger of terrorism to a trivial topic of mere sensational gossip? What is even more alarming is the media’s selectivity in highlighting police-concocted reports about “Islamic terror-ists” – which tend to create further fissures in an already religiously divided society. Let us recall the cooked up stories against the Delhi University lecturer S A R Gilani (arrested in connection with the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001), which were carried day after day by the main-stream press which damned him as an inter services intelligence(ISI) agent. The slander campaign against Gilani ended up with a permanent stigma on the very face of the Indian national media. With the help of a few courageous human rights activists, Gilani fought the case and suc-ceeded in clearing himself of all the false charges and escaping the gallows – and also disproving the media propaganda. Can the newspaper reporters, who acted as faithful stenographers of irresponsible intelligence bureau officers, recompense Gilani for the irreparable damage done to his reputation? Their newspaper editors have not yet had the courtesy to apologise to him. Even after the crushing defeat of their orchestrated campaign against Gilani, they have not learnt the lesson. They created a hoopla over the arrest of some Muslims (branded asISI agents) in connection with the recent Jaipur blasts. After weeks of grilling and torture in police custody, the arrested were finally released as there was no shred of evidence against them. But the damage had already been done by the press, not only to the personal reputation of these people, but also to harmonious relationship among religious communities – by sowing seeds of suspicion among neighbours. Foisted by Its Own PetardHowever powerful the corporate media bosses might pose to be, it is the public which has the last laugh – laughing at the ridiculous predicament that their search for the sensational lands them into. The pompous editors of the so-called national (ie, the English) press were taken for a ride on June 30 by a Goa-based journal-ists’ collective whose blog (penpricksblog-spot.com) played a prank on them by mail-ing a story claiming it to be emanating from a German intelligence agency. True to their habit of worshipping as sacrosanct any nonsense served up by the police and intelligence agencies, the editors splashed in their papers the amazing report of an 88-year old Nazi war criminal who was tracked down in the Goa-Karnataka border by the joint efforts of Indian and German detectives.The Telegraph embellished the original blog story by adding a quote from Indian Intelligence Bureau officials saying that the old man had come to India via Argentina, Bulgaria and Canada. The Indian Express scored a point over its rivals by giving us the scoop that the Nazi criminal had been “airlifted to Berlin” – even confirming the news by quoting the Karnataka additional director general of police (DGP) for intelli-gence Shankar Bidari, who said that he was aware of his arrest as early as June 28 morning and of his subsequent removal to Germany! The other gullible newspapers in the glorious company of these celebrated national dailies were Deccan Herald and the DNA, the former discovering “brilliant musical” talents in the arrested Nazi, and the latter going one better – by carrying the report a full day after it was revealed there was no such Nazi criminal to start with, and the entire story was a hoax!As is their wont, none of these news-paper editors showed the moral obliga-tion to own up to the guilt of spreading a false story. What is even worse, the administration is not known to have taken any step till now against the Intel-ligence Bureau officials or the Karnataka additionalDGP – who, if we are to believe the newspapers, gave the stamp of authenticity to a fictitious story. The next time they bombard us with reports of arrests ofISI agents, we cannot blame the readers if they take them with – not a pinch, but a fistful of salt!S.N.D.T. Women’s University Mumbaiand Canadian High Commission New DelhiOrganizingInternational Conference on“Economic Development and Competitiveness – Canada and India”On 3-5 October, 2008Venue:– Committee Room, S.N.D.T. Women’s University, Churchgate Campus, Mumbai 400 020The discussions will be divided into the following sub-themes:a) Economic Development in Free Society: Canada and Indiab) International Framework for Trade and Commerce: Canada and Indiac) Mergers and Acquisitions: Canada and Indiad) Economic Development and its Impact on Environmente) Economic Development and Changing Status of Womenf) Comparative Advantages: Literature and Social Studiesg) Comparative Study of Laws Affecting Women: Canada and IndiaLast date for submitting abstract: September 1st, 2008.Registration fee: Rs. 750/- (For Indian Outstation Delegates) Rs. 250/- (For Local Delegates) Cdn $ 150/- (For Foreign Delegates)Abstract to be sent as soft copy attachments to the following email id:sndt.conference2008@gmail.comThe abstracts will be peer reviewed and intimations sent by September 19, 2008.Contact No: – Dr. G. Y. Shitole – 9322247148 Dr. Ram Sable – 9890012069

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