A free press?

The independence of the Indian media: disturbing trends

The day the Delhi High Court delivered its verdict on the December 2001 Parliament attack case, a couple of colleagues of SAR Geelani, lecturer in Arabic at Delhi University’s Zakir Hussain College and prime accused who along with two others had been given a death sentence by the POTA trial court, rushed back to the staff room with the good news that he had been acquitted. The media followed, bemused and not a little confused that we were celebrating. In particular, I recall being asked by a reporter from the NDTV news channel if we were happy now that the ‘kalank’ (stain) on the name of the college had been removed. I replied with surprise that nothing had blemished our institution’s reputation, for Geelani had consistently asserted his innocence and we had believed in him, but that a number of prestigious media houses, including NDTV, were now publicly covered in muck.


The night before the acquittal, NDTV had once again referred to Geelani as a ‘terrorist’ and member of the Jaish-e-Mohammed! The reporter had the grace to look embarrassed but neither his channel nor any of the others who uncritically accepted and publicised the version of the Special Branch of the Delhi police felt they had erred professionally in what they had done or even seemed to be aware that they had in fact interfered in the conduct of a fair trial for the four accused in the case. No personal apologies followed nor were any corrective editorial measures undertaken. Apparently, the media felt it was simply not accountable for, nor did it assume any responsibility for, its role in influencing public opinion. Media coverage had much to do with creating an environment that dismissed even the possibility of innocence of the accused as a lack of ‘patriotism’.


The point was sharply brought home a few weeks ago when news of the Supreme Court judgement, upholding the death sentence for Mohammad Afzal and fixing the date of his execution, broke. Almost all channels carried the news prominently, as was to be expected. What was objectionable was that the news was accompanied by a replay of Afzal’s so-called ‘confession’ at a press conference that the Special Branch of the Delhi police had called before the trial within days of his arrest. Later, during his trial, Afzal had stated that this ‘confession’ had been extracted after torture and the court had found it inadmissible as evidence. But none of this had the slightest effect on the media, which probably found the sound bites appropriately sensational and accessible with minimum effort. The constant replaying of this ‘confession’ across channels without the subsequent ‘story’ of it being inadmissible evidence played an undeniable role in determining opinion against the appeal for presidential clemency. At another level, by selective reportage surely the media reflected its own attitude towards professional exactitude and credibility?


The coverage of the 1993 Mumbai blasts convictions also follows a selective pattern of focus and emphasis. The 13-year delay in bringing the guilty to book was headlined both in the electronic and the print media but almost no report asked why no action has been taken against those responsible for the two month long pogrom targeting one community, which preceded the blasts in Bombay. The question is not one of balancing crimes against one another but of the media functioning as the conscience of society in ensuring that justice is done and that victims are not denied public expression of their grievances because of their religion, caste or social class.

Of course the media would ‘target’ the high profile Sunjay Dutt case given public interest in the popular Bollywood star, but what accounts for the fact that the incidents relating to Madhukar Sarpotdar, reportedly found to have a stockpile of weapons in his jeep during the 1993 riots, have simply dropped out of media view? The Srikrishna Commission Report gathers dust, yet it documents the complicity of the police and administration. Is this not an issue of vital concern for a democratic society? Does the media not have the responsibility to keep at the forefront, and in the public eye, matters that are sought to be swept under the carpet by vested interests? The notion of freedom of the press loses its critical value if the media fails to perform effectively in this area.


Where is the news coverage of the Malegaon blasts with the dead comprising mainly women and children under 12? Why do questions of the involvement of the Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva organisations in bomb terror attacks on mosques in Parbhani and elsewhere get silenced within days of the involvement of these organisations being discovered? In April this year, bombs exploded inside the home of activists of these organisations in Nanded in Maharashtra killing two persons. It was police investigations that provided details of the involvement of these organisations in making bombs. There is kid glove treatment of all information or news relating to the Hindutva elements that contrasts blatantly with the ease with which any Muslim ‘suspects’ or Islamic organisations are labelled ‘terrorist’ or ‘Pakistani’. This continues unabated despite shocking exposures like the one at Chattisingpora or the Yakoob (Khwaja Yunus) case. It is another matter altogether that Giriraj Kishore of the VHP repeatedly declared in a TV interview with Shekhar Suman some years ago that they (he and his organisation) were ‘atankvadis’ and that spreading terror among those who stood in the way of implementing the Hindutva agenda was their express intention. This arrogant pronouncement found no repetition or resonance anywhere else in the media nor attracted any adverse comment.


Stereotypical responses have been so internalised by large sections of the media that they appear spontaneous and ‘normal’. Consequently, one feels that one is almost overreacting in drawing attention to the qualitatively different responses in the media to some obscure maulvis objecting to Sania Mirza’s tennis wear on the one hand and the SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) reaction to Sikh cricketer Harbhajan Singh removing his turban for an advertisement on the other. The former was highlighted as a ‘fatwa’ (which it was not) that was retrogressive (which it was) but also threatening (overtones which it seemed to acquire because of the media splash). Sania’s mature response was presented as distancing herself from her religion and not from narrow-minded elements within it. In contrast, the powerful SGPC’s position was carefully and temperately reported, its impact was not claimed to carry negative implications for the Sikh community as a whole and Harbhajan Singh’s pusillanimous apology was even lauded as a sober and commendable corrective!

Does the media not have the responsibility to keep at the forefront, and in the public eye, matters that are sought to be swept under the carpet by vested interests? The notion of freedom of the press loses its critical value if the media fails to perform effectively in this area


The mindset that has come to dominate the electronic media and the front page headlines and reporting of even the print media, notable and welcome exceptions on the central pages notwithstanding, predictably ignores, undermines or frankly ridicules social groups and forces that are not part of, or are victims of, the neo-liberal agenda and lifestyle. (Remember when the Indian media couldn’t speak of Laloo Prasad Yadav without an actual or metaphoric smirk on its face? The tone has changed completely since the great Indian Railways turnaround!) The way in which the anti-reservation campaign of a section of doctors in New Delhi and elsewhere was highlighted and given prominence without even a comment on the graceless and offensive use of sweeping and polishing shoes as ‘symbols and forms of protest’, was most disturbing. The issue itself, though debated and discussed in articles and interviews, could not overcome the sense of a public relations campaign for the anti-reservationists. The fact that the actions, frequent, demonstrative and articulate, of those supporting the social justice policies were almost blacked out of media prominence certainly helped to create the general effect of a losing battle that did not deserve wide public support.


The media’s lack of an appropriate response, barring some important exceptions, to the passing away of BSP leader Kanshi Ram, showed both political and intellectual bankruptcy. A leader who changed the character and contours of Indian politics in such a significant manner seemed not to even attract much notice by the media. The references made by Mayawati to the legacy and role of Kanshi Ram were presented only as instances of her ‘playing politics’. One could not help but contrast this with the 24X7 coverage of the last days of the BJP’s Pramod Mahajan (undoubtedly a friend of many leading journalists but hardly a significant or lasting contributor to the Indian political landscape) and subsequently, even of the drug scandal surrounding his son. It was difficult not to conclude, with some degree of nostalgia for its proud past, that the Indian media was not just preoccupied with trivia but that it had trivialised its own role.


In contrast, the role of the media in reopening the Priyadarshini Mattoo and Jessica Lal cases has been commendable but a couple of swallows hardly make a summer. The wake up call is sounded and the choice between being significantly free and being commercially successful but trivialised is one that confronts a media with a long and powerful tradition of independence that it could be endangering if the present trends continue unabated.


Archived from Communalism Combat, November 2006. Year 13, No.120, Cover Story 8



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