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Believe the disempowered

Mainstream media reinforces the alienation felt by people who live on the margins by ignoring them or reporting on their problems through lenses blurred with ignorance and prejudice

The MEDIA’S response to the December 15  violence at Jamia Milia Islamia was no thanks to the so-called “national”, privately owned news channels located in the capital, for whom the scene of the crime, so to speak, was a stone’s throw away. There were several reasons, but mainly that the authorities could not have snapped internet services in the national capital on the pretext of maintaining law and order as they have done elsewhere in recent months. In Kashmir, the internet blackout has exceeded four and a half months; in Assam and other parts of the North-east, it’s only now being restored. Thus, what was happening on the ground became known primarily because of social media.

For instance, even as the police were trashing the Jamia library, we saw what was happening because there were videos and live feeds on social media. We could see students cowering under desks, shattered glass, chairs overturned. We saw students being beaten by the police and the now viral video of two incredibly gutsy women students, Aysha Renna and Ladeeda Farzana, wagging their fingers, shouting and standing up to the police as they tried to save their male friend, Shaheen, from being beaten up. None of this was seen on national television.

Despite their huge presence in Delhi, the non-state television channels could not figure out how to get all sides of the story.  Instead, they resorted to their usual ploy of filling airtime with talking heads.

One channel, NDTV, did show a clip of the Uttar Pradesh police vandalising scooters and motorbikes parked outside Aligarh Muslim University, where protests in support of their peers at Jamia had broken out, but only because, the anchor emphasised, the act had been filmed by their own cameraman. She went to considerable lengths to explain that even though they had access to the videos by students inside Jamia, they could not show them because they could not be “independently verified”.

Yet, despite no “independent” verification, police officials got plenty of airtime to give their version of the story, defending their actions as essential to maintaining law and order in the face of a “mob”. There was no pushback from the reporters who spoke to these officials, leaving them to have the final word.

Worse still, the next morning, some in the print media – who ought to have known better as they are not expected to churn out instant copy the way TV reporters and anchors are – used the words “mob” and “protesters” interchangeably. The Indian Express had a front page headline that read, “CAB protests: Mob hits the street.”

At a time when we have a government that regards all protest against its policies as “anti-national” and instigated by “jihadists” or “Naxals”, or as the prime minister said at an election rally in Jharkhand, by people who can be “identified by their clothes”, it is incumbent upon the press to make a necessary distinction between a “mob” and “protestors”.  The latter could turn into a “mob” if provoked, or if some amongst them are determined to provoke the police. But it is not inevitable.

If it happens, surely due diligence on the part of the media requires caution. Why repeat police terminology without first finding out how and why the confrontation began? There is a history of peaceful protests deteriorating into violence because of the actions of some people who join them to provoke and, thereby, undermine the reasons for the protest.

Even if there was no time to establish who was responsible for the violence or the vandalism, at least an element of doubt could have been injected into the headline, so that “mob” and “protesters” were not seen as being coterminous.

The media does a disservice to the rights of citizens to protest peacefully by drawing this kind of equivalence. It also does a disservice by disbelieving the disempowered, in this case the students, while giving plenty of airtime to those in power.

As it turns out, none of the 10 people arrested following Sunday’s violence in Jamia are students, according to the police. Who are these people? Why are crime reporters not digging out these details? And why is the police, always so ready to give out names of people accused of a crime, being so reticent?

A day after the events of Sunday, in the media did make an effort to give the other side, especially Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today who stepped out of his studio and spent time walking around Jamia talking to the students. The visuals in his show mirrored those of the videos on social media by Jamia students of the attack on their library. A shining exception to the rule, as always, remains Ravish Kumar of NDTV India. He has always strived to show the truth, and he did so in this instance as well.

My limited point is that in such a situation, when the dice is so heavily loaded in favour of the authorities, a media which claims it is trying to be “balanced” needs to make a greater effort to get access to the other side. And if the only way of doing that is by “verifying” the content put out by those under siege, as these students were, then it could have been done. Digital platforms like Scroll did much better by running a live blog for 13 hours and including some of the videos.

By directly, or indirectly, endorsing the official version, the media is reinforcing the narrative the government would like it to perpetuate.The protests in Jamia were covered because they were in Delhi. But people in the Northeast have not been so fortunate. When the Guwahati-based TV news channel Prag News was attacked by security personnel, who entered its offices and beat up some of the journalists, one of its senior editors was heard on one channel literally begging the national media to pay heed to what was happening in Assam.

Senior journalists from the North-east have also been appealing to the “mainland” media, as they call it, to try and understand the varying reasons for opposition to the citizenship law in the region. The North-east comprises eight states with distinct cultures and languages, and more importantly, different histories. Yet, for us in the “mainland” it is just a region that is either seen as colourful, because of the exotic tribal cultures, or troublesome, because of the history of insurgencies.

Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press, points out in his article in The Hindu, “This inability of those outside the North-east to see what the North-east sees betrays to an extent an ignorance and an insensitivity to a stark reality small marginalised communities there face.” Patricia Mukhim, editor of the Shillong Times, has also explained, in an article in Mint, the complexities of the diverse reactions in the North-east to the CAA.

Even at a time like this, when so many parts of that region are deeply disturbed by the passing of the citizenship law, and before that by the way the enumeration for the National Register of Citizens was conducted in Assam, precious little effort is being made to educate viewers and readers, or even the journalists who work with mainstream media, on these distinctions within the Northeast.

Mainstream media reinforces and exacerbates the alienation felt by people who live on the margins, either in geographical terms or in social terms, by either ignoring them, or reporting on their problems through lenses that are blurred with ignorance and prejudice.

www.newslaundry.com