Journalism of exclusion and derision

BY Firos| IN Media Practice | 09/02/2004
In their coverage of the WSF meet, several mainstream papers tried to deride the Forum.
                   

             Reprinted from Meantime, a Calicut-based magazine

 

 B F Firos

 They were stimulated by sugar cane juice instead of Coca-Cola, and by computers running the free Linux software instead of the corporate Microsoft Windows. A platform for thousands of like-minded people opposed to imperialism and globalisation, the World Social Forum held in Mumbai, despite its many shortcomings, was an inspiring and extraordinary event that many will not forget in a hurry. It is true that in these dark times of war and destruction, a gathering like this may not be able to offer a panacea for all the ills faced by the world today, but the fact that there are people out there to put up at least a symbolic fight against the evils of neo-liberalism and capitalism, evokes some rays of hope. 

It will be interesting to take a look at the way our print media covered the Forum. Even as the WSF meet unfolded, some Indian English newspapers covered the meet as if the whole event was an annual carnival of nomads! Such was the way they trivialised this significant event. In fact, the importance or lack of it given to the WSF reveals the individual newspapers’ stance on the issues raised at the Forum.  

The coverage of WSF by The New Indian Express was rather minimal and cynical. On the other hand, true to its Left leanings, The Hindu gave extended coverage to the WSF proceedings without relying on news agencies. The Hindu gave a front-page summary report on the opening day (January 16) of the WSF. The war against Iraq figured prominently at the meet and the report by The Hindu detailed the opinions and feelings of the various delegates, including that of writer-activist Arundhati Roy. But The New Indian Express relegated the same to its inside page with just one three-column report by the UNI; the report ended with a quote from British MP Jeremy Corbyn.            

On the same day, The Hindu also carried a second report titled, "Where a thousand flowers bloom", which was an apt narration of the mood of the delegates from different countries. "If the idea of democracy were to let a hundred flowers bloom, then the World Social Forum 2004 would surely be a bouquet of the most fragrant blossoms," the report started with this colourful sentence. "As South Koreans opposing the war in Iraq mingle with Pakistani Sindhis singing ‘Dum-a-dum mast kalandar’, as the drums from Tamil Nadu mingle with the cymbals of Tibet, they all seem to say, ‘another world is possible." 

The following day, The New Indian Express carried an interview with Lisa Jordan of the Ford Foundation regarding its funding of the WSF. The Express would want us to believe that it reproduced this interview "in view of the controversies regarding the role of the Ford Foundation in the WSF", but it may well be a case of the paper trying to malign the Forum. During the course of the interview, Lisa says that the Indian Organizing Committee of the WSF refused to receive funds from Ford, as the contributions made by the Ford Foundation had "helped prevent India from undergoing communist revolution". The paper happily put out this point in the headline as if communism was some huge catastrophe that would befall India.               

For The New Indian Express, the whole WSF event was a "bubble". On January 19, it carried an editorial titled, "That WSF bubble", which took a cynical view of the six-day meet. While calling the WSF gathering as a "road show", the editorial went on to slight—tongue-in-cheek--the delegates and activists as "cultural conscience keepers", "anti-globalization polemists" and "anything-goes anarchists". According to the editorial, the Mumbai meet was a place where these "agitationists" set up "temporary base".  

But after the snub, the editorial conceded that the WSF delegates "represent real, urgent problems with the international order". While agreeing that the WTO hasn’t been able to deliver the benefits of fair trade to Third World farmers, the editorial cited the problems faced by Third World countries due to globalization.  

So what was the editorial ultimately trying to convey? We got the answer in the last para. It said that global financial institutions and superpowers cannot be wished away by "painting suburban trains" (another damning reference to the WSF), but the leading lights of the WSF "must engage with those much-despised financiers and corporates". Grand idea indeed, but if only it were that easy—as if the IMF-World Bank executives and a certain George Bush have no clue about the WSF’s valid opposition to their policies.  

Meanwhile, the ‘hot story’ of the rape of a woman delegate by a South African Judge kicked up a huge ruckus with some sections of the media going gaga over it as if it was what they were looking forward to in order to trash the WSF agenda. The whole attention was diverted from the conference per se and almost all newspapers took special interest in giving out ‘exclusives’ on the rape saga. The New Indian Express, which never cared to carry a single report on the WSF proceedings on its front page, flamboyantly displayed the rape story plus the pix of the accused on the top left of the front page. And rather than relying on news agencies for covering the WSF, this time the paper managed to get its own reporter for covering the rape issue.           

"WSF reels as SA judge is held for raping delegate", The Times of India cried out on its January 20 report. The headline gave the impression that the entire WSF conference came to a standstill because of this rape issue. Predictably, the report failed to mention how the rape incident affected the smooth conduct of the meet. Instead, the paper dwelt on the ‘rape’ details. Here it has to be mentioned that The Hindu displayed journalistic decorum and restraint on the issue. The rape story was given its ‘due importance’ by placing it on the inner pages.        

Again, while papers like The Times of India and The Hindu gave prominent coverage to the closing ceremony, The New Indian Express did not carry a single report on the event--not even a photograph. On the other hand, it gave four follow-up reports on the rape case on its "national" page; this included a five-column report including a photograph of South African delegates visiting the accused. While omitting the WSF closing ceremony, on the same day Express gave the picture of delegates at the World Economy Forum in Davos.  

The rape episode once again showed our media’s tendency to go after the spicy aspects of a particular event while discarding the vital ones. They helped create a mystery over the rape allegation, and there was one report saying that there was widespread criticism on the handling of the case. The report quoted some delegates criticising the WSF organizers for not owning up responsibility for the rape. Quoting a delegate, the report alleged that the "organizers were resorting to the same sort of the conspiracy of silence that they were attacking". In all this, one suspects a conspiracy to malign the WSF meet. The kind of enthusiasm shown by some of the papers in demonising this anti-globalization meet was intriguing.          

There were also positive stories about the WSF. The Times of India carried an IANS report on the use of Linux software at around 120 terminals at the media centre and in about 400 computers around the WSF complex. "When you are talking about a different world, free from globalization, how can you overlook the major technology entrapments? Microsoft started as a liberating force that made everything in software open for people, but later turned the other way," the report quoted Jitendra Shah of the Free Software Foundation of India as saying. Further, The Hindu carried an interview with Ramsey Clark, the former US Attorney-General and human rights activist. He talked about how the US public was being fed lies by the mainstream media. "You still read about mass graves in Iraq; but people still don’t know about the 1.5 million deaths after the first Gulf war and the economic sanctions that followed," said Clark who is an outspoken critic of Bush. 

 Journalism of Exclusion  

The main theme that figured during the WSF meet was the US invasion of Iraq. This being the prominent item in the speeches of the delegates on the first day of the meet, a whole lot of media outfits including some international news agencies gave this as the lead. The AFP (Agence France Presse) of France gave this as the headline: "Activists at WSF declare war on Bush". The report captured the emotions of the delegates for whom Bush was the chief villain. But all the reports by the Associate Press (AP) of the US deliberately omitted the anti-Bush factor. All of its reports were sugar-coated with reductive phrases such as the "anti-corporate forum". Known for its unfailing obeisance to the US establishment and its policies, AP’s selective reporting and omission wasn’t really surprising. And here is something for you to munch on: Had the WSF organisers included "terrorism" on their agenda and opposed it, what would have been the AP’s coverage?

 

The author is a sub editor at Meantime

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