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Role of MSM in Muzaffarnagar riots

Author: Smita Barooah
Publication: Niticentral.com
Date: September 11, 2013
URL: http://www.niticentral.com/2013/09/11/role-of-msm-in-muzaffarnagar-riots-131560.html

Yet again, India’s mainstream media has failed in its role as the fourth pillar of democracy. The role of the media in society is to keep the general public abreast of events that affect their lives. However the Indian media has repeatedly either ignored or deliberately underplayed important events that were inconvenient for a particular narrative. Worse still, certain members of the mainstream media (MSM) have sometimes misrepresented facts and indulged in rumour-mongering and speculation that suits their political sympathies.

A PRECEDENT

Let me begin with just one recent example of news that was virtually suppressed. In 2012, there were serious riots in Kokrajar (Assam). The media first responded with stony silence and subsequently did some perfunctory coverage. When faced with criticism from different quarters, senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai defended himself by blaming the lack of coverage on the “tyranny of distance”!

As an Assamese, I find the excuse particularly appalling and insulting. Were we to believe that in an age where Indian TV crews take the trouble to report live from Egypt, they could not reach a State in their own country? Even if we buy the excuse, did the gravity of the situation not merit at least a discussion in TV studios? Were the lives of the Assamese less valuable than those of other Indians? There have been more incidents of violence this year in Assam, and yet again – silence.

MEDIA ON MUTE AGAIN

Perhaps Assam is indeed too far for MSM journalists, but a similar pattern has emerged in the coverage of the recent Muzffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh (UP). From the time Akhilesh Yadav took over as Chief Minister in 2012, the State has witnessed many small riots. Thus, the situation in Muzaffarnagar is a continuation of an ongoing trend. However, this time things spiralled out to a point where it became impossible to hide the matter. Escalation started after August 27 when people from a minority community killed two youths from the majority community, for protesting against the molestation of a young woman (possibly their sister). It is a sad commentary on our media that we still don’t have clear reports of the exact circumstances. After the incident, the local panchayat demanded action from the Government. When the administration didn’t respond, they called for a Mahapanchyat. As people returned from that meeting, armed groups set upon them, and the situation rapidly went out of control.

This synopsis was derived 10 days after the riots started, from articles in the Washington Post, The Daily Mail and Tehelka. Until then, there was no worthwhile information from any of our media channels, which incidentally spent days on micro-analysing the saga of Asaram Bapu, an allegedly philandering seer. The man should be punished if found guilty, but is hyping the incident anything more than gossip-mongering? Surely the unnatural silence on more serious matters indicates that something is very wrong?

 

OPERATION COVER-UP

We’ve touched upon the initial silence. Now let’s look at the media response after the story broke. The narrative-making factory went on a simultaneous overdrive to justify the late reaction, and spin palatable alternatives. Unlike Kokrajhar, the “tyranny of distance” spiel could not hold in UP. So other stories were manufactured.

Strategy 1: Blame social media

One dominant narrative was that media stayed mute, as they were responsible people, unlike the social media “lumpens”, who spread rumours and fanned the riots.

This is what Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-In-Chief IBN18 Network claimed:

It is a strange line of argument, since pundits have written reams on how social media has limited penetration. To claim that farmers and other local folk in Muzaffarnagar were getting incited by updates on social media is beyond ridiculous! Did Sardesai have proof that tractor-riding farmers checked their Blackberries and iPhones for Twitter updates? Did he hear of villagers who took a break from rioting to check their Facebook periodically? If not, his allegations are baseless and HE can be accused of rumour-mongering.

Please note that unlike social media, mainstream media still has huge reach and clout in these areas. Rumours tend to spread due to lack of information and the consequent floating of half truths and conjecture. Instead of playing ostrich, if media had done their job and reported the situation earlier, the administration would have been pressurised to act in time. Moreover, a lot of rumours on the ground could have been quashed at inception.

Sardesai’s allegation was particularly galling since his own colleague Ashutosh, Managing-Editor at IBN7, went to town with rumours. He made some very serious allegations without providing a shred of corresponding evidence!

trategy 2: Victimhood

The best form of defence is to play victim. When there was a backlash against Ashutosh (and Sardesai) for their unprofessional behaviour, instead of apologizing or retracting, this is how they responded:

Strategy 3: When a story can’t be hidden, muddy the waters

In a case where the Uttar Pradesh Government clearly messed up, the blame was generously apportioned to various parties (excluding the Congress). This was bolstered with random speculation. In any politically charged situation, one expects finger pointing and deflection attempts by politicians. However, one does not expect the media to be a party to this game.

This is how NDTV Editor Barkha Dutt chose to spin the story. Thankfully, Kiran Bedi (former top-cop and social activist) called her out for it:

The tweet raised an important point. Either the Chief Minister of a State was largely responsible for administration, or he was not. How could rules be applied differently in different States, depending on the political sympathies of a journalist?

If Barkha Dutt’s response was strange, a couple of tweets by Nikhil Wagle of IBN Lokmat were disturbing!

Here Wagle tweeted the opinion of tainted cop Sanjiv Bhatt (whose wife contested on a Congress ticket against Narendra Modi).

Note how he also echoes Senior Congress spokesperson Digvijay Singh’s standard allegation to drag in the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

ave to disprove. Surely, if he is making a serious allegation, the burden of proof lies with him. Without substantive justification, he is merely spreading rumours. Am I the only one who thinks this is an ethical issue?

Conclusion

It is amazing that until the lid blew off, not one news channel or major publication thought it was important to cover the UP riots or analyse the tensions which have been simmering for over a year. No one thought it was important to have people on the ground to present a balanced view. When journalists abdicate their responsibility of reporting news, it is a problem. When hysteria and soundbytes replace content, it is a bigger problem. But when news is substituted with selective reporting, unsubstantiated allegations, deliberate misrepresentation, and feigned victimhood, it is a crisis! Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case but a growing and worrying trend.

Now the question is: Are we, the viewers, going to respond to this trend with muteness too? Or are we going to do something about it? Do write in with your views and suggestions.
 
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