The attacks on journalists on Saturday in Mumbai left mediapersons shaken, not so much because of its unexpectedness or its brutality but because of the naked hostility towards the media. If the accounts on attacks on journalists in the sub-continent are any indication, this animosity is widespread and pernicious.
Mediapersons present at the demonstration – a protest led by the Mumbai-based Raza Academy and other organisations against the killing of Muslims in the riots in Kokhrajar, Assam - reported that they were asked which organisations they represented and then attacked! The OB (Outdoor Broadcasting) vans of several television channels were burnt and technicians who were inside the vans were told to get out or they would be burnt with the vans.
Three photographers – Vivek Bendre (The Hindu), Atul Kamble (Mid-Day) and Prashant Sawant (Sakaal Times) were seriously injured and were hospitalised.
According to reports, speeches by some leaders at the demonstration berated the media for its failure to cover the Assam riots. Some of the protestors told journalists covering the demonstration that the media neglected the deaths of children but covered the Olympics or the little girl trapped in a borewell (The Hindu, August 12, 2012) .
Trouble erupted in Assam’s Kokrahjar district on July 19 but it was only when the Guwahati-bound Rajdhani Express was attacked on July 24 that print media woke to the situation. But electronic media clearly lagged behind. The CNN-IBN editor Rajdeep Sardesai, who admits that news channels failed to give adequate coverage to the riots, blames the ‘tyranny of distance’ for the omission. In a blog, he says the ‘prosaic’ reason why there was no coverage of the Kokrahjar riots was because it was around 150 Kms from Guwahati and no national news channel had an OB (outdoor broadcasting) van in Guwahati!
So if print media came in late and broadcast media stayed away, did the internet fare better? According to firstpost.com columnist Venky Vembu (The ‘invisible’ Assam riots: When cameras looked away, July 26, 2012), social media did step in to fill in the gaps. Vembu felt that the electronic media simply didn’t cover the riots because it showed up the Congress-led government in Assam in a bad light.
The internet is, of course, a double-edged medium. Delhi-based filmmaker Yousuf Saeed blogged about media misrepresentation in the popular site, Kafila (How to start a riot out of Facebook) and said that numerous gory and blood-soaked images’ which didn’t seem to be sourced or attributed to anyone, circulated on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter ‘along with the assertion that the world’s media is silent about the plight of Muslims in Burma’.
Saeed added that some Urdu newspapers printed the pictures without any verification. Pakistani blogger Faraz Ahmed, he said, actually investigated the claims and found that the pictures were of people who died in natural disasters, including a picture of Buddhist monks cremating people who died in an earthquake in China! Ahmed wrote in the Express Tribune newspaper from Pakistan (Social media is lying to you about Burma’s Muslim cleansing) and attempts were made to stem the hate campaign against Buddhists.
While Saeed does not deny that Muslims were killed in the riots, he wisely suggests better media education to read internet pictures and information more critically instead of knee-jerk censorship of the Internet.
Needless to state, the poor coverage or even the propaganda was hardly justification for the attack on the media in Mumbai. In a statement condemning the attack, the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists (BUJ) pointed out that ‘the media plays a crucial role in disseminating information and any attempt to obstruct it is an attack on freedom of expression’. The statement added: Sections of society may have reservations about the media’s representation of their grievances but attacking the media is not the way to redress these. Dialogue and engagement with the media is crucial to preserving and protecting freedom of expression.
In another statement, the Mumbai Press Club said that ‘those covering the agitation had no views for or against the issues being raised and were professionally acting as messengers of the news. This is nothing but an attack on democratic institutions and these groups have no right to vent their frustration on innocent professionals involved in news coverage’.
Yet, why were the protestors so quick to target the photographers and camerapersons so systematically and viciously? Is the media an easy target? Does the impunity that governs all attacks against the media give confidence to aggressors that they will get away?
The media is routinely pilloried for alleged bias in coverage, for what is perceived as over-intrusive attacks on the privacy of both celebrities as well as ordinary citizens who are victims of accidents, natural disasters or crime or even those caught up in police raids on rave parties! The media is attacked for incitement or active participation in criminal offences (as in the case of the Guwahati molestation) or for allegedly siding with all manner of groups – from Maoists in Chhattisgarh and Orissa to separatists in Kashmir or anti-nuclear protestors in Koodankulam.
Of course, an honest introspection will lead us to accept that some of the criticism against the media is entirely justified. Overall trust in the media, as the Edelman Barometer never fails to remind us, is low. Recently, senior editor Bharat Bhushan, speaking on “Regaining respect for journalism” at the 10th South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) in Kathmandu last week, pointed out that the general public hailed the comments made by Press Council Chairman Markendeya Katju criticizing the media. Readers and viewers do feel that media ethics is sorely lacking and editors and journalists must stringently examine their practice of journalism, Bharat Bhushan added.
Other speakers from South Asia echoed the general dissatisfaction with the media in all their countries. A delegate from the Pakistan Union of Working Journalists (PUWJ joked that, in Pakistan, television channels were roundly criticised for giving such excessive coverage to the death of Hindi film superstar Rajesh Khanna, instead of the Assam riots!
But while this is certainly indicative of the media’s obsession with news that sells and the race to grab TRPs, the anger against the media can turn vicious and dangerous to the lives of media persons.