Media does not hide its colour

IN Media Practice | 05/06/2013
If we do accept, as all the papers say, that it is a war between the State and the rebels, ought the media to take sides?
ARITRA BHATTACHARYA looks at the tenor of the coverage of the attack on the Congress convoy in some mainstream newspapers.

It is no surprise that the media spoke as one in condemning the Maoist attack on a Congress convoy in Chhattisgarh on May 25. After all, key leaders of Congress’ state unit were killed in the attack. Apart from speaking to ‘survivors’ and trying to get ‘eyewitness’ accounts, newspapers, in the days after the attack, focussed on two key strands: one focussed on how intelligence failure may have led to the attack; the other focussed on the blame game/conspiracy theory angle, suggesting certain Congress leaders or the BJP had a tacit understanding with Maoists involved in the attack.

Yet, an analysis of media coverage of the incident and its aftermath—as seen in the Kolkata editions of Hindustan Times, The Times of India, The Indian Express and The Telegraph—shows that the media clearly chose to side with the State in the State v/s Maoist conflict.

Trial by media?

The day after the attack on the Congress convoy, on May 26, all newspapers in question attributed it to the Maoists, without any doubt whatsoever. In a front-paged story headlined “Senior Congress leaders killed in Naxalite ambush”, Hindustan Times reported, “Maoists on Saturday targeted a convoy of Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh’s Jagdalpur district…”; The Times of India said: “In the most audacious attack so far in Chhattisgarh, Maoists on Saturday…” in a story titled “Salwa Judum founder among 17 killed in Bastar Maoist attack” on page 1; The Indian Express also labelled it among “the most audacious attacks in the history of the Maoist insurgency”.

It was only 3 days later, on May 29, that the same newspapers reported that Maoists had claimed responsibility for the attack. Fairness would demand that the word “alleged” be used while attributing the attack to the Maoists before they actually claimed responsibility for it. Yet no newspaper did this, which raises the question: is this not trial by media? Is it not a case of pronouncing a party guilty of something without them claiming responsibility of it being established through incontrovertible evidence?

Attack on Democracy?

All the newspapers in question spoke as one after the Maoist attack: for all of them, it was an attack on democracy, and it was an occasion to call for stronger, more stringent all-out police action against the rebels, give or take a few details here and there. One only needs to look at the edit pages of these newspapers to know the ideology that drives the media.

A Hindustan Times editorial on May 27 was titled ‘Act tough on red terror’. It said: “[The attack] is an all out war against the Republic of India… the elimination of the Maoists has to be conducted in a sharp and focused manner...The Indian State cannot behave the same way [as Maoists, who according to the paper, do not value the lives of innocent tribals] since they are fighting to defend liberty, equality and democracy. In short, they are defending the IDEA of India.”

The Times of India was a bit understated in its demand for armed police action against Maoists, tempering it with the demand for development. In an editorial on May 27 titled ‘Coordinate Better’, it said, “Centre and state must now join hands to curb Chhattisgarh’s bloody Maoist insurgency, through an appropriate combination of targeted retributions and dialogue whenever possible.” On May 28, another editorial titled ‘Bastar’s Killing Fields’ said, “The concerned parties – the Congress and the BJP – would therefore do well to confront together this grave threat to national security with a clear sense of purpose: zero tolerance for Naxalite violence and speedy development to end the exploitation of the tribals.”

On 27 May, The Indian Express, in an edit titled ‘Mortal Combat’ wrote, “Maoists also have a larger contempt for lives…The [Maoists’] fight…is for the destruction of the democratic state.” On the other hand, The Telegraph, in an edit titled ‘Red Alert’ on 28 May, said, “The Maoist bloodbath in Chhattisgarh is an assault on everything that democracy stands for…The rebels want nothing less than the destruction of the democratic republic that India has been since independence…if any group has declared war on the State, it has to be defeated…it is all about the life and death of the democratic ideal.”

The one thing that begs attention here is as follows: if we do accept, as all the papers say, that it is a war between the State and the rebels, ought the media take sides? Of course, newspaper owners and editors can have their opinions—after all that’s what edit pages are for. The problem is their opinions and biases reflect across the paper, in terms of the language that papers choose to talk about the Maoists; the kinds of incidents/ events that are given news space; and through seeing ‘democracy’ as the preserve of the State.

Siding with the state

For all the talk about the attack on democracy, one wonders why almost all edits decried the romantics who back the Maoists, noting that their platitudes for the rebels ought to be cast aside in the fight for democracy. Isn’t democracy just the opposite? Isn’t it about allowing for varied points of view and debating them, rather than imposing a partisan agenda that enjoys the support of the powerful elite from all walks of life?

One also wonders how democracy is only what the Indian state stands for. A little research would show us that it is but one version of democracy that critics would argue is more of a show—merely being allowed to vote every five years is not a measure of democracy!

Also, one needs to peruse texts like Gautam Navlakha’s Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion to understand how a different kind of democracy seems to be at work in the ‘liberated zones’. Of course, one might argue that Navlakha’s is a partisan account, and sure it is; however, in the same breath, one must also point out that the media’s account, its propositions, is also partisan—that so called neutrality and objectivity are kept at an arms distance when the fight is against the State. The media, have no doubts, is on the side of the State.

Look at the coverage of the ‘encounter’ between security forces and alleged Maoists in Edasmeta in Chhattisgarh on 17 received in these newspapers. Of the newspapers mentioned above, the story made it to the front page of The Indian Express only; the reporter, Ashutosh Bhardwaj, was critical of security forces’ claims of an encounter, stating in no uncertain terms that there was no Maoist link to the incident yet. Eight tribals and one paramilitary personnel were killed in the incident. None of the other papers gave the incident front-page coverage. The Times of India carried a single column news story stating the security forces’ version, without raising a doubt about the ‘encounter’. One may argue that the role of the media is precisely the opposite, and runs along the lines of what The Indian Express reporter had done. If eight CRPF men had been killed in that ‘encounter’, we would have seen similar calls for stronger action against Maoists a week earlier then they appeared.

A Human Rights Forum report on the encounter clearly held CRPF personnel responsible for ‘the unilateral and unprovoked firing upon unarmed adivasi civilians at Edesmeta village’. This report did not make it to any of the newspapers, possibly because HRF is no Amnesty International. But one wonders if the coverage would have been different if the report had given a clean chit to the CRPF men.

Noble Karma?

Mahendra Karma, killed in the Maoist attack, was no noble soul. However, The Telegraph, in its May 27 edition, carried a 7-column headline saying “Noble Karma in death”. The story was about how Karma stepped out of his vehicle while Maoists were looking for him, and spoke out without fear, “I am Karma.” The first paragraph of the story was instructive. It read, “The Kalashnikov-toting Maoists peered into every vehicle asking “Where is Mahendra Karma?” and spraying bullets at the occupants as they failed to respond.”

One can say, with certainty almost, that if one were to replace the word Maoists with security forces/ CRPF/ BSF/ army, one would not come across the resultant phrase in any mainstream newspaper in the country. The use of this kind of language, the painting of Karma as the fearless soul who saved so many other lives—this is all part of the linguistic war unleashed by the media on Maoists. It helps to paint the rebels as ruthless and inconsiderate.

Part of this campaign was The Times of India’s front page story on May 29. Headlined ‘Karma was stabbed 78 times by women Maoists’, it read: “For Salwa Judum founder and Congress veteran Mahendra Karma, the last few minutes of his life must have been excruciatingly tortuous: a handful of women Maoists took turns to stab him 78 times, making sure they inflicted maximum pain before he met his end...” This paragraph serves a dual purpose: not only does it expose how ruthless the Maoists were, it also shows how women—the very signposts of compassion and kindness in the patriarchal framework—had been transformed into ruthless killing machines, thanks to misguided ideology.

The same story went on to say, “But then the Maoists are known for their brutal techniques of killing enemies…” As if, security forces kill kindly in a war!

Hindustan Times was in the game too. On May 29, its story on Page 1 headlined ‘3 days later, Maoists own up to strike’ noted, “The Maoists had shot Karma and staged a victory dance around the body.”

Once again, replace the word Maoists with security forces/ army/ CRPF/ BSF, and one can say with certainty that the resulting phrase won’t be found in any mainstream newspaper in the country. The language itself is part of the vilifying campaign, and from here to calling the Maoists crazed killing machines bereft of ideology is no big leap.

To be fair though, The Telegraph did try to paint a picture of ‘caring rebels’. In the ‘Noble Karma’ story, it noted that a survivor said that women Maoists appeared sympathetic to the victims and offered water to some of them. However, one needs to remember that this was ensconced in a narrative about the valiant leader and representative of the State who sacrificed his life for the ‘cause’. That Karma was the founder of Salwa Judum that many accuse is most responsible for making lives of adivasis in Bastar hell did not seem to matter.

The coverage of the valiant struggles of those on the right side of law also threw up problematic feudal elements. For instance, both The Telegraph and The Indian Express carried front-page stories on May 27 of the personal security guards of N K Patel and VC Shukla taking their own lives when they realised they could not save their masters. What was this but a remnant of the feudal order? Must it have been left without being commented on?

Karma and the Judum

All the papers in question carried a piece on Mahendra Karma and his association with Salwa Judum; however, all of them stopped short of holding him responsible for the atrocities the Judum afflicted on tribals in the area.

Hindustan Times on May 27 carried a story on Karma (Salwa Judum man Karma was on Naxal hit-list for dividing tribals) on page 10, which noted that “it was Karma who gave the vigilante group its name and organised rallies in the villages of Chhattisgarh.” Although the story pointed out that “the Salwa Judum had also begun to attract stringent criticism from rights groups…”, it gave the last word to Karma—majority of the story was dedicated to why Karma saw the need for Salwa Judum and his explanations for it.

The Times of India carried a single column story on Karma and the Judum (Karma founded 2 anti-Maoist movements) on page 9 of the May 26 edition. The story credited Karma with having founded two major anti-Maoist movements in Chhattisgarh — Salwa Judum in 2005 and the Jan Jagaran Abhiyan in the mid-1990s. Like the Hindustan Times story, it noted that “Salwa Judum has been the most controversial and led to the bloodbath in Bastar”, but gave the last word to Karma, noting he had “vowed to continue his struggle to wipe out Naxalism from the region saying the movement had ruined lives”.

On May 27, The Telegraph carried a story on the Salwa Judum (Salwa stares at bleak future, page 4). This story too was warped: it said, “rights bodies sympathetic to the Maoists accused the Salwa Judum of extorting money from local tribals”. The point to note here, of course, is that although the story mentions that the Supreme Court had ordered the disbanding of the Salwa Judum in 2011, the criticism of the Judum is squarely placed on the shoulders of rights bodies sympathetic to the Maoists—suggesting that the criticism in itself was partisan.

The story went on to note that since 2008, Maoists had killed 800 SPOs—in the way it is stated, this becomes a fact. However, the atrocities committed by the Judum do not enjoy the status of a ‘fact’, as this statement from the story bears out: “The milita was accused of attacks on 644 vilages, rapes and the displacement of three lakh tribals…” The Judum’s atrocities remain a mere accusation, in the absence of ‘authenticated figures’ from government agencies on how many tribals the Judum killed. This is yet another instance of the media clearly considering the State as the fount of truth.

Another story in The Telegraph on June 3 (Bastar: How democracy lost a generation, page 5) was more balanced, in that it noted that “opponents” criticised the Judum of atrocities, and included quotes from political representatives in the area talking about killings and counter killings by Judum cadre and Maoists having wiped out an entire generation in Bastar. The story quoted a local politician as saying that the Judum “polarised the entire tribal society”.

The Indian Express devoted a whole page (page 9) to a story titled ‘Bastar betrayed’ on June 2. Among other things, the story noted, “If the Maoists have been able to retain Bastar, a major factor is the atrocities on tribals by the Judum.” It talked about the slippery terrain of the State’s claims, noting, “In 13 years of Chhattisgarh's history, thousands have been arrested on the charge of being Maoists or for alleged involvement in attacks but there has not been a single conviction.” One of the reasons for the escalation in violence in the last 10 years in Bastar, the story noted, was the merger of PWG and MCC to form the CPI (Maoist) in 2004; the other factor was the Judum.

The Indian Express story was written by Ashutosh Bhardwaj, while The Telegraph story ‘Bastar: How democracy lost a generation’ (June 3, page 5) was under Jaideep Hardikar’s byline. The critical note in their pieces, as well as the refusal to believe the claims of the security establishment/ State can perhaps be attributed to them being stationed in/near the conflict zone.

Voice of reason?

Perhaps the most clear-eyed piece to have appeared in the papers mentioned above was on the op-ed page of The Indian Express. Written by Ashutosh Bhardwaj, the story was titled ‘More than a security failure, a social failure’. Bhardwaj, the paper’s Chhattisgarh correspondent, noted that most people who talk about fixes for the Maoist problem do not know the issue first hand; he mentioned the oft-held stereotypes of Maoists, noting, “A majority of India does not understand the Maoists and also lacks the desire and dedication to grapple with their reality.” He noted that Maoists are no killing machines as the State and its agencies (including the media, unfortunately) would have us believe. “Of his (the Maoists’) total curriculum, violence or armed insurrection in just one aspect, which, due to its obvious newsworthiness…dominates the discourse.” He cautioned against the all-out approach advocated by newspapers, including his, and drew attention to the total absence of any basic services in Bastar. “Are these insurgents really so omnipotent, or is there something within the cogs that keeps the wheels well-oiled?” he asked, while talking about the lack of any government initiatives in the area.

His reasoned piece on May 30 was followed by a shrill piece by his editor Shekhar Gupta on June 1. Called ‘The bleeding heartless’, the piece sought to show the misplaced liberals who cry out against military action against Maoists their place.

“It (the UPA government) has kept mum as its embedded “liberals” have popped up routinely with  conspiracy theories and “root causes”,” Gupta said, questioning the place of liberals in governance. Talking about Binayak Sen, he said, “But must you appoint him in a key Planning Commission committee? Gentle, children's doctor, yes. But he is a convicted Maoist sympathiser.”

As if believing in the Maoist ideology was a crime, never mind the Bombay High Court’s judgement that mere belief in Maoist ideology is no crime. Would Gupta raise questions about a person who roots for all-out police action against Maoists making it to the government/ its arm? He called Jairam Ramesh’s recent description of Maoists as terrorists as “correct and fitting”, all the while batting for all-out action against them.

Sure, newspapers and their editors can have strong opinions on subject that we as readers may not agree with; however, the problem arises when these beliefs start seeping into the coverage of events in the newspaper, and the kind of language employed to describe parties in a conflict. In that, the media does not hide its colour.

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