Assam turns inwards

IN Media Practice | 02/04/2015
Not a single satellite TV channel in Assam has a news bulletin in English, depriving the region of a wider audience in the country.
ANURAAG BARUAH finds this disturbing.

The English news bulletin in Assam is dead. Complaints about how the North East is neglected by the national media and cut off from the rest of the country have become a cliché but it’s time we asked ourselves some hard questions about why this has happened. 

Let’s take Assam. How can we expect the national media to cover us when we ourselves don’t have a proper news bulletin in Hindi or English, the two link languages? Do the non-Assamese people living in the state have no right to the news? Are we becoming racists by completely shutting down Hindi or English as outsider languages? 

As much as we complain about the attitude of the so-called mainlanders, what can be said about the in-house attitude? And what is the point of moaning, as we do, about a brain-drain when it is this kind of ethnocentric behaviour that puts off the younger generation and ensures they never come back home?  
 
Out of the eight states in the region, Assam is the only one to have seen positive rates of growth and development. It media has made remarkable progress, boasting of five news channels telecast on the DTH service in addition to numerous other cable channels. 
 
The satellite channels claim to speak for the region. The reality is very different. In a region populated by multiple tribes and clans of various ethnicities and languages and where English is the only link language, there is not a single DTH news channel that offers English news; Assamese, the language of the middle class/upper class elite, is the predominant language. 
 
The tag lines of the channels are interesting. One channel, for example,  claims to be “Pushing North East 24x7” without airing a single English news bulletin while another claims it focuses on the region, with the acronym of the ‘North East’ in its name, but also has no English bulletin.  
 
Earlier, Assamese News Prime Time was from 7 to 8 (which it still is) and English News Prime Time was from 8 to 9 in all the regional news channels of Assam. These bulletins used to have dual anchors with proper segments on regional, national, and international topics along with at least one panellist and one telephone interview. 
 
But soon the English bulletin was reduced to a half-an-hour and with only one anchor. This soon became the 9 o’clock half hour news which was often dropped to make way for live coverage of special functions.   
 
Many senior producers and editors blame the TRP ratings for causing the  closure of English bulletins. Manjori Borkotoky, a journalist, former English news anchor and producer says: ‘One look at the present Assamese news bulletins will tell you that there is more drama than news nowadays. The English news bulletins definitely didn’t have any drama and it was all pure news that was aired every day. Maybe the TRP ratings are also a reflection of the state of contemporary society that looks for cheap thrills in the name of news watching and airing.” 
 
Another former TV journalist blames the exclusive pursuit of profit, saying that the evening English bulletins showed quite good TRP ratings from Guwahati while the morning bulletins also received favourable feedback from the other states of the North East. He believes it is the race for profits that led to the closure of the English bulletins. They got quite good TRP ratings too but the rat race (among the channels) for the best TRP rating among the good TRP ratings led to this closure.  
 
This raises the question: Don’t regional channels have a duty to act as the fourth pillar of democracy rather than focussing purely on making money?   
 
 “English television journalism is dying in the North East. The reason is that the channels cannot afford to compromise on TRPs. So we don’t have a platform to champion the causes of the North East at the national level. This is one of the million effects of the faulty and ridiculous system of TRP ratings. There is no way out. The entire system of television ratings simply doesn’t deserve to stay,” says Rhiddhis Chakravorty, senior television journalist. 
 
Rajeev Bhattacharyya, senior journalist and writer in Guwahati who was also the former North East bureau chief of Times Now, says that the entire focus on  raising the ratings had made English news bulletins take backseat.  
 
‘There was an informal understanding on the sharing of footage between Times Now and Newslive.  Now, even if the English news bulletins were to be re-started by all the local channels, I don’t really think it will motivate the national channels to have more news about the North East.  In the last 5-6 years, most national channels have either reduced staff in their Guwahati offices or are running the show with just stringers.  This in turn is linked to the view that TRPs don’t come from stories on the North East,’ he says. 
 
It’s ironical that at a time when Assam has no English news bulletin, English medium schools are mushrooming all over the state. Also ironical is the fact that while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reviving the ‘Look East’ policy, what is the North East offering to India and the world? News channels that can’t seem to reach out to the rest of the country, leave aside the global population? 
 
Apart from depriving the region of a platform from which to air its issues and opinions to the nation, how will potential investors understand the region when they cannot understand a single word of all the news bulletins?  
 
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