Kudankulam's nuclear holy cow

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Special Reports | 18/12/2012
The Tamil media was clearly negating a powerful people's movement with its inexplicable prejudices which were fully exploited by the security forces.
NUPUR BASU dissects the coverage of the anti-nuclear plant agitation at Kudankulam across print, TV and social media. pix: manorama online
Sahayam, a 42-year-old fisherman from the Tamil Nadu coast, had climbed a rock on the coastline and was among the thousands who were protesting against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu in September 2012. Suddenly an aircraft which was keeping a vigil on the crowd reportedly swooped dangerously low. A frightened Sahayam lost his balance and fell on the rocks. On being rushed to hospital in Nagercoil, he was declared dead from a head injury. Sahayam was father of four children, three daughters and a son. His wife now has four children to feed and educate, without a source of income on shore or at sea.
 
Sahayam was one of the two fishermen who lost their lives during the heightened Kudankulam agitation last month. The other fisherman, Antony John, was shot down when police opened fire on the protesters. Antony was also father of two children--a school-going son and a college-going daughter. His family at first refused to take his body in protest. Finally they relented. The family was offered compensation and assured that that his daughter would be given a job. Sahayam’s family, however, has received no such assurance of compensation. Could compensation have been linked to the level of coverage?
 
The question I asked myself when I read an agency report on Sahayam’s death was: just how many newspapers and TV channels told us the story of Sahayam? A search revealed the shocking reality: hardly any.
 
As a journalist schooled for the last three decades to tell stories of those on the margins in both print and prime-time television, I saw this clearly as a missed opportunity. The media, as far as I was concerned, had ignored a powerful human interest story which needed to have been told to the people of this country. The report should have raised questions regarding Sahayam’s tragic death that was caused by a fall due the scare of a low-flying vigil aircraft. Why was the aircraft flying so low? Is this how the Indian state should be scaring its poor fishermen who are legitimately protesting against a nuclear power plants in the world’s largest democracy--with technology from the sky?
 
Many questions could have been asked. But unfortunately, they were not. The next question came to my mind--if these stories were not given a good play or reported well--then what was the reason for it? Was it just lazy journalism? Was it that urban reporters did not care about the death of poor fishermen? Or was it deliberate exclusion?
 
It is with these questions in mind that I decided to examine the coverage in the national and Tamil media and also the social media space with regards to the Kudankulam agitation in recent weeks. These are the good, bad, and ugly trends I spotted.
 
Tamil press : The anti-nuclear agitation in Kudankulam was a reality that had to be reflected in the coverage of the Tamil newspapers. So they could not escape that. But they tried to twist the facts and hide some facts. The media hyped up the agitation but the biggest mistake they made was that they did not highlight the 25-year-old history of this agitation that began in 1987 and, not in 2011, as it was made out by most of the media”, said T S S Mani, a journalist who assesses 15 newspapers from Tamil Nadu every morning in Chennai on Win TV on a programme titled “News and Views”.
 
A close scrutiny of the headlines in the Tamil newspapers revealed the bias. A Dinamalar headline (all headlines have been translated from Tamil to English) on September 21 with a Chennai dateline screamed “Siege of Idindakarai – Udayakumar is like a rat caught in a trap”. Next to the story was a big three- column graphics of the sea, protesters in boats, and aircraft flying in a formation just above, keeping a vigil over the protesters almost celebrating this bizarre theatre that played out in the Bay of Bengal off Kudankulam in September 2012. It is these very air surveillance aircraft that had triggered Sahayam’s fall and his death. But the paper was silent on that.
 
Another headline from the same paper with a Delhi dateline had a dramatic headline: ‘PROOF !’ accompanied by a sub-headline which read “ Big hit for anti-Kudankulam activists”. The copy said that 3200 NGOs in Tamil Nadu were being ‘serviced’ by US dollars and quoted the central government saying they had released the list. The report went on to quote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying that Kudankulam activists were getting funds from abroad. A box item in blue next to it gave the breakup of the foreign funds received. The copy said that according to the Home Ministry sources, Indian NGOs received Rs 10,000 crore in 2009-10. Of this, Chennai received Rs 871 crore, Bangalore Rs 702 crore, and Mumbai Rs 606 crore. In Chennai, World Vision India, which works with the poor and marginalised, received the maximum amount of nearly Rs 209 crore.
 
Most of the headlines were shrill and dramatic: “Every day Rs 5 crores is OUT!!” and the copy went on to say that in the last six months Rs 900 crore of taxpayers’ money had been wasted owing to the agitation, and the struggle had affected the economy of the State. Quoting a director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. SA Bharadwaj, the paper said that “this was electricity that Tamil Nadu needed very badly and they would have to wait for another six months for it.”
 
The intention to malign the protesters and the leaders of the movement such as Dr S P Udayakumar, Convenor, People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), was naked. A professor who taught literature at a US university, Udayakumar returned to Tamil Nadu to run an NGO for the poor and has been campaigning against the Kudankulam Nuclear power Plant during the last ten years. One headline read: “Mullivaykkal talk: case against Udayakumar of sedition.” The copy was even more damaging. It said: “Udayakumar is said to be fasting into his sixth day but doctors say he is hale and hearty and therefore he is lying!” There was a box item with the title” Secret is out!”
 
Dinathanthi, the largest-circulated Tamil dailywas no better. It ran headlines with a dateline from Nagercoil: “From abroad Rs 30 crore has arrived” .The story is attributed to officials in the government. Another report headlined: “Tension because of police bandobast in Kudankulam” had only the police version of the story and no voices of the protesting women and fisherpeople while another with the headline “Bank a/c details of Nagercoil NGO is being scrutinised” gave the version of the NGO, the Rural Uplift Centre, which says that it was using its money for poverty alleviation and not anti–Kudankulam protests. A report put out the appeal by Madurai lawyers to the Tamil Nadu IGP “to arrest Uday Kumar”.
 
Dinamalar banner headlines continued: “List being prepared of NGOs doing illegal activity”. The report quoted the “Q” branch police. Provocative headlines such as “Udaya Kumar is being watched carefully: will the NSA be used against him?” are embellished further in the copy by suggesting that if the anti-nuclear campaigner tried to escape from the sea, the Coast Guard should give him hot pursuit. If the Central Government had quite lost the plot with the Kudankulam agitation by slapping sedition cases on protesting villagers and fisherpeople (the numbers being quoted both by the media and the activists varies between 600 and 8,000 sedition cases!), the media too had excelled itself in Tamil Nadu in turning judge and jury with regards to reportage on the people’s agitation against the nuclear plant.
 
The sensational tone of reportage had all the makings of a Kollywood film. It was just a matter of time before you would see this on celluloid. Only one thing was sure: the hero will be the IGP of the Q Branch in Chennai and the villains will be the fishing communities. The formula box item too was there with the story. It went on to list how many cases were there against different players in the movement and it listed 55 cases against Udayakumar’s name.
 
The paper ran a headline with a Tirunelveli dateline: “Vottam” meaning ‘Fleeing: Udaya kumar’s gang”. The copy of the report has a play on the word Udaya which in Tamil means to kick and it says that Udayakumar is fleeing to escape the kick from the people. Then there was a box item which says “bussaanadhu porattam” meaning “the agitation has fizzled out”.
 
Clearly the direct target was the convenor of  the  movement. Headlines such as “Udayakumar’s hunger strike--how much did they spend on it?”, “Who  is the cause of the loss to the exchequer?”, “Without  losing any time Udaykumar needs to be  arrested!”, “Normal life has  been hit in Idinthakarai -- Udaya  Kumar is hiding to escape the cases”  were the rule rather than the exception. The headlines indicate exactly what the copies contain. Sources: government, police, Home Ministry and the nuclear establishment. Why one man should have occupied so much headline space in the Tamil media when the pictures from the ground were clearly showing hundreds of women and children and ordinary fishermen joining in the agitation against the plant, is anybody’s guess. There was not even an attempt to seek another view from the ordinary protesters. The Tamil media was clearly negating a powerful people’s movement with its inexplicable prejudices which were fully exploited by the security forces.
 
Mindset
 
Yet another police sourced story had the headline: ‘Extremist terrorist groups caught’ and the report says that Kudankulam is being used to expand activities of terrorists. The blatant manner in which ordinary poor fishermen and their families, protesting peacefully by going into the sea and forming a human chain, are dubbed as “terrorists” clearly revealed the mindset of a large majority of the Tamil press and its bias and lack of independence. This was journalism at its poorest.
 
“The Tamil Nadu public were misled by this tone of coverage which suggested that this agitation was just one year old. We know that it started from the time the nuclear deal was signed with Russia in 1987. In fact in 1987, 1988, and 1989, there were more people protesting against it than today. But the media either has amnesia or it has reporters and editors who are too young and do not know the history of this struggle. At that time there was no electronic medium which could cover the agitations and hence it has been forgotten. But the press was there then too. Why have they chosen to ignore this long history of protest against Kudankulam?” asks Mani, the Win TV anchor.

There were exceptions to the rule. Well-known writer/journalist Gnani on the other hand devoted endless columns on the genesis of the anti nuclear controversy playing out in Tamil Nadu’s coastline in the weekly magazine Kalki. Anand Vigathan also broke its usual film industry dominated coverage to give space to the Kudankulam stir.

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