Govt ad masquerades as truth

BY Meena Gopal| IN Media Monitoring | 25/04/2010
When a government adopts propaganda as a mechanism to reach out to the people, it is a tacit admission of a people's divided thinking on the role of the Maoists.
writes MEENA GOPAL

These days, all major new dailies are flooded with news and analyses on naxal" violence and the police "action" against Maoists for the past several months in the states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh which have  suffered the intensity of violent occurrences the most.

Recently, the union government launched Operation Green Hunt to flush out and eliminate Maoists in these states on the grounds that they were threats to internal security. And, one heard and saw Union Home Minister P Chidambaram and the Chief Ministers of these states constantly airing their views on the need to wipe out the Maoist menace.

News reports indicated that even as the state paramilitary forces take strong action against the Maoists, efforts to promote development would simultaneously be undertaken in these backward districts in these states. Clearly, the message being conveyed to the public was that the Maoists were thwarting the state’s desperate efforts to take development to the backward districts of the country and were posing obstructions to this effort.

Of course, there is no mention, let alone a discussion, about why there was no development in these parts, even after more than 60 years of Independence. Similarly, there is no mention or understanding of how the state would identify the Maoists and weed them out from the masses in these states in order to eliminate them.

Even as these reports continued pouring in, an advertisement issued in "public interest" by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, in several national dailies (see The Hindu, March 20, 2010, p.14) for nearly a week added an element of intrigue to the goings-on.

It showed a frail woman looking down despondently with the following lines attributed to her: "First, the Maoists came promising prosperity; then, they took away my husband; then, they blew up the village school; now, they want to take away my 14-year old daughter. Stop, please stop this mindless violence; (and then in bold capital letters) I want to live!"

A line pops up alongside: "Abjure violence, support development". The background depicts a broken hut with pots, pans and other belongings, lying scattered, of a family squatting in front of their home, and another image of couple of school boys standing in front of a demolished building, which is obviously a school.

This advertisement from the Ministry of Home Affairs appeared on page 14 of the newspaper which curiously had a contradictory story on page 12 of the same edition. The news item on page 12 read: ‘Witnesses allege biggest anti-naxal operation of 2009 was fake.’

According to the story, some witnesses from a village in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district said that 12 of the 30 people killed by CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action), a special force of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) raised for Operation Greenhunt, had no links with Maoists and that six of them who were picked up were killed in cold blood.

The witnesses described in detail the manner in which these men went about their daily chores such as herding cattle before the forces picked them up and shot them. They also mentioned the manner in which the forces destroyed parts of a school which was already demolished.

The publication of the report and the advertisement in the same issue of the newspaper created a peculiar situation in which an advertisement in one part of the newspaper emphasized an issue considered untrue by the news report in another part of the newspaper. The advertisement was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs which, incidentally, is also responsible for Operation Greenhunt.

The advertisement smacks of propaganda. We are used to seeing such propagandistic advertisements by political parties during their election campaigns in a bid to influence public opinion, or by corporates slamming one another’s products in brand wars. They project their supposed accomplishments while deriding those of their opponents.

But, why should the government indulge in propaganda? When a government adopts propaganda as a mechanism to reach out to the people, it is a tacit  admission of a people's divided thinking on the role of the Maoists.

An uncanny parallel ran through the actions referred to in the ad: took away my husband, blew up the village school, and the actions attributed to the paramilitary forces in the news report: picked up, destroyed parts of a school.

It was as though the government was seeking desperately to airbrush its deeds and project them on those they consider their opponents. And what is the line about the taking away of the 14 year old daughter insinuating?

Such propaganda reeks of the government’s desperation to legitimise  its violent actions against its own citizens by vilifying Maoists who seem to have gained not just the support of the people in the tribal districts but also the sympathy of the middle class readers of these national dailies.

The government stands exposed in the claim,  'Issued in public interest.' How can an authority whose legitimacy is shaken by the inconsistency portrayed in the advertisement and the news report speak of the interest of the public? Also, how can it shamelessly utilise tax-payer money/ public funds to disparage a section of the public while seeking to influence another section? Anyone with common sense and sensitivity can see through the dubiousness of the state role.

Finally, a couple of questions on the need for public vigilance on media ethics: How can newspapers accept advertisements from anybody claiming public interest when they themselves are the conscience-keepers of the public domain? Is all advertising and such space offered by the media for revenue sieved through some policy parameters based on morality and ethics of journalism?

Even as we contemplate the role of the state, the role of the media, which brings to us our  knowledge of the world, should also be looked at critically.

 

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