Reporting Conflicts through Biased Lenses: Media in India
By Irfan Engineer
Media and education are two important tools that can help us know our world and understand and interpret it; understand our society, culture, diversity, functioning of various institutions and different people with whom we may not be in direct contact. The print media in India played a seminal role during the freedom movement spreading awareness and giving fillip to the national movement for independence. It served as a platform to debate various perspectives and issues of the day and to expose the misdeeds of the colonial government within the restrictions imposed by the British rulers. The objective of the national press then was to have due regards to the truth and to enlighten the public with a view to their social improvement and to communicate to the rulers knowledge of the real situation of the people. Media has now evolved and includes the electronic media in the form of internet and TV Channels and they play an equally influential role in life of a nation. People’s movement in Egypt used the tool of facebook to reach out to people, network and mobilize.
World over, media tends to be nationalistic in its outlook defending the sanctity and interests of its national institutions at the cost of truth. This is evident not only during war but also every time India-Pakistan cricket match is played. Media indulges in jingoistic nationalism. The match is nearly projected not as a sporting event but as a war fought not between cricket teams but two armies consisting of eleven members each. National sentiments are aroused around cricketing event which at times leads to riots and targeting of minorities. The amount of crackers burst on each wicket of the Pakistani team and every time Indian batsmen send the ball to the boundary and the cumulative noise generated may not be less than the noise during the war from fire arms and bombings. The national ‘consensus’ is more elitist in its perspective and less sensitive and accommodative towards the needs, interests and views of non-middle class majority in general and minorities in particular. Like any other tool, media and education serve the interests of those who own and exercise control over them; or those who wield monetary and other mechanisms to exercise their influence. This is truer about media. Media in a democracy is supposed to be free and independent from state control. Free and independent media only ensures that the state and the government of the day will not be able to put restrictions and curbs on publication and broadcasting of views and information that may be inconvenient to it. However, that does not ensure that everybody has equal access to media. People and consumers of media exercise little control over it. It would not be wrong to say that media by and large highlights the concerns, values and views of elite.
To repeat a hackneyed phrase, media is called 4th pillar of a democracy. It acts as a platform where public policies are debated and our views and opinions are formed. It wields tremendous power in shaping our attitudes about the world and other people. The power of media was evident when A. Raja, the telecommunication minister in UPA-II was forced to resign or when the powerful politician’s son was charged with murder of Jessica Lal and acquitted by trial court for lack of evidence, or where Ruchika Girhotra’s molestor – the former DGP of Haryana – was handed down a relatively lighter sentence. Media mobilized the public opinion on these issues that greatly concern the middle classes, (of course they are important issues), took stock of functioning of some of the institutions of the country and forced some corrective measures in these cases. However many other issues which are important to the subalterns like minorities, dalits, adivasis, unemployed, hunger and poverty stricken people receive much less attention from the media. The media coverage and projection of various religious communities largely ignores the diversities within, particularly among the minorities. From homogenous projection of religious communities to communal conflicts is relatively shorter journey for interested politicians to work upon and the consumers to internalize prejudicial views and attitudes. For example the media liberally used the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ routinely for every bomb blast till Pragya Singh Thakur and others were arrested by Maharashtra ATS Chief Hemant Karkare. Then media looked for religiously neutral terms to describe terrorism of Abhinav Bharat and Sanatan Sansthan. By then the interested politicians stretched the meaning of media popularized term of ‘Islamic terrorism’ to popularize that while all Muslims were not terrorists, all the terrorists were Muslims. This prompted communal profiling of all Muslims by security agencies, and staged encounters that were questioned by Human Rights Organizations. Ishrat Jehan and Sohrabuddin were presumed to be terrorists and neither the majority community nor the media ever questioned the presumption until a long battle in Supreme Court brought the truth out in day light.
The politicians, corporate world, the government and the elite use the media platform to influence and form social opinions that are conducive to their interests – the social consensus about free markets, prejudices against dalits, minorities, serving as platform for hate propaganda are then a result of such media practices. Media wily nily helps powerful and well connected elite sections to create a ‘social consensus’ around their views and interests, to project their culture as national culture and help these sections perpetuate their hegemony. Noam Chomsky has labelled this as ‘manufacturing consent’.
Dominance of views and perspective of elite – a very small section of the society – leads to many distortions of truth and creating and shaping communal attitudes. Though it is unfair to compare, I still can’t resist from comparing the coverage and space given to disaster from terrorism and communal riots. Though far more people have been killed in communal riots, it receives much less coverage. Incidents of terrorism are covered with banner headlines on front page with photographs. The stories on terrorist incidents are followed up for days with coverage of human stories of victims. Indian Express serialized 187 stories – one for every victim killed in the bomb blast on Mumbai trains. Whereas stories of communal riots are carried on inside page with much less prominence. There are fewer follow up stories with human angle with an attempt to carry version of victims from both communities in equal number though overwhelming number of victims are from minority community. Terrorist attacks are seen as an attack on the nation where as communal riots are seen as an aberrant behaviour by some fringe elements that deserves not to be remembered. Stories of victims of terrorist attacks are covered for years after the incident where as the victims of communal riots are soon forgotten, though the suffering of the victims of terrorism and communal riots are same. The lasting impression of the readers then is shaped accordingly – terrorism as far more lethal and a threat than the communal riots and that members of majority community suffer equally from the communal riots. When the Christians were attacked in Karnataka and Kandhamal by the Sangh Parivaar organizations, a section of media rather than covering the suffering of the victims and their innocence was busy giving coverage to the causes which led to the attack, viz. conversion activities and carrying opinions for and against conversion rather than debating on fair means to pursue whatever one’s grievances. Media was thus helping the aggressors who have used unfair and unconstitutional means to debate the issues they are interested in and thereby indirectly encouraging them to use violence. Not only do the media report the news, they create the news by deciding what to report.
Media often displays its insensitivity towards the marginalised sections in general and minorities in particular by giving little importance to the culture and diversity within minorities. Issues of importance to their lives and their perspectives receive very little coverage or mention. The Indian National Congress was routinely accused of appeasement. However, in reality, Muslims are discriminated and receive little succour from the state unlike other marginalized sections of the society and have lagged far behind in socio-economic indicators. The issues of livelihood, of denial of equal opportunities in education, employment, bank loans, and government contracts to Muslims in particular and minorities in general were largely ignored by the media. It was the Urdu Press that highlighted these issues. The dominant coverage in media regarding Muslims is about the veil of Muslim women, fatwas issued by the conservative ulamas like the one on Imrana issue or on polygamy and triple talaq or demands of politically motivated and fundamentalist sections to ban books like Satanic Verses and Shah Bano Judgment. Therefore the dominant image of the Muslim community is that they are all religious zealots, fundamentalists, more loyal to their religion than the nation, polygamous, multiplying like rabbits, appeased by the Congress and have no socio-economic issues.
There is another reason why the perspective and views of elite dominate. Media in India spends very little on news collection, which includes the salary of journalists and editors, services of news agencies, feature writers and columnists. With fewer reporters covering fixed beats like crime, government, politics, local bodies, legal beat, parliament etc., during disasters like riots or terrorism and even for routine crime beat, journalists rely more on what they are fed by police, and in other cases what they are fed by the PROs of various corporations and industries. The biases of police get reported in the media and often without independent corroboration or taking versions of other stake holders in the story. We know from various Inquiry Commission reports which looked into the riots the bias of the police.
The media in India is structured and caters to various interest groups. English language media owned by large corporations wields far more influence with the government and policy decisions than Indian language media. English media tends to be only a tad better in inclusive approach towards minorities and in promoting liberal secular outlook as it caters to the elite with more liberal values as compared to the Indian language media which largely caters to the regional elite and lower middle classes. Regional elite and lower middle classes feel more threatened by global cultural influences and therefore tend to be more conservative and have approach of exclusion towards minorities. Of course there are no neat divisions in the real world. During the Gujarat carnage in 2002, the English language media coverage was critical of the rioters and the role of the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi whereas the Gujarati media was cheering and praising the role of the Chief Minister. Even during the coverage of demolition of Babri Masjid on 6th December 1992, the Hindi language media was more partisan in the coverage than the English media with honourable exceptions on both sides. Partly these approaches are dictated by the commercial interests in raking in advertising revenues and increasing its sales or TRPs and partly it can be attributed to the editorial policy or individual bias and prejudice of the journalists. In case of editorial policy, or commercial interests, interventions may work little and in such situations, groups come out with alternate media albeit with smaller circulation. This includes increasing practice in a section of media of paid news. To some limited extend, the forum of Press Council of India can be used to set right certain wrongs like patent misreporting. However, Press Council of India has very limited power and at the most the concerned news paper can be made to apologize. This works in some cases and the publishers become a little careful, particularly those which are conscious of projecting its image as impartial and reporting authentic facts. Another mechanism is self regulation and self restraint exercised by the industry by a team of prominent journalists and editors. The Editors Guild has evolved some regulations and norms of reporting, of reporting views of all the sides, of not naming the community of victims and perpetrators while reporting conflicts, the kind of photographs to be avoided, etc. However, implementation of these norms has to be left to the individual channels and print media. They cannot be coercively enforced. The civil society can also play an active role in monitoring the media and making the media consumers aware and alert of the biases within the media.
In case individual biases of journalists, we need to work on continuous sensitization activities like workshops or seminars for the journalists. People’s Media Initiative, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution and other organizations have undertaken such activities with mixed results.
In spite of all this there is space for the liberal democratic opinions and to represent the rich diversity and interests and views of the minorities, dalits and adivasis within the media that is grossly underutilized. It is only constant engagement with the media that the toehold for the minorities, dalits, adivasis and for women can be expanded through letters to the editors and sensitization of the journalists and students of mass communication.
Kalpana Sharma, Jyoti Punwani and Kedar Mishra are insiders and have been monitoring and writing about media and its coverage of riots and conflicts. The articles written by them from time to time is being compiled by Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution with the hope that it will serve a useful resource for those want to engage with the media. We are thankful to all the contributors for readily permitting inclusion of their articles in this compilation.