Malayalam media shows the way

Both TV and print ceaselessly covered the floods and helped with rescue efforts, sans sensationalism

Malayala Manorama, the Malayalam daily, lowered its masthead twice last week. The newspaper, perhaps overwhelmed by the humanitarian crisis at hand, seemed to bow in acknowledgement. Entire towns, hill stations, highways, bridges and hundreds of people of Kerala were submerged under the catastrophic floods. Termed as the flood of the century, unrelenting torrential rains for the last two months forced the authorities to open the shutters of all 80 dams, both hydroelectric and irrigational, on August 9, causing the flooding of almost all of Kerala’s 44 rivers and countless tributaries. By August 15, the death toll was rapidly mounting, and four days later entire towns were evacuated.

Nearly a million people are now housed in relief camps, and in the last week alone 200 people died. But strangely, the mainstream national media, both visual and print, ignored the calamity till the situation turned completely tragic.

Many in the “national” media woke up only after the international media—The New York Times, The Guardian, The Strait Times, The Washington Post— covered the Kerala floods. The website Southword has documented this well.

Former MP and media critic Sebastian Paul says, “When national media, where journalists from Kerala dominate, ignore events in their own state, then surely that national media has to be declared a National Disaster. We cannot comprehend why they would ignore a calamity of such magnitude. It would have drawn newspapers and news channels by the hordes for it had all the elements of what they call a good story.”

It was social media and new media that spread the word around and got the attention of the people in the farthest ends of the world, while a large section of Big Media giants in the capital slumbered on.

Even after Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Kerala on August 12 to survey the flood situation, the media largely ignored the cataclysm brewing in the state. Had they been alert, that would have warned the central government to be prepared to respond.

Meanwhile, the local media ceaselessly covered the floods and helped with rescue efforts. Kerala media stood up to the challenge and relentlessly worked day in and day out to share coordinates and relay messages of stranded people who needed rescuing. The enormity of the situation was not lost on the local media for on Independence Day, even as the PM was speaking, Malayalam news channels concentrated on the rescue efforts on a war footing. Every other news item was relegated to a few sound bytes.

Almost all Kerala news channels –Asianet, Manorama, Mathrubhumi, Reporter, News 18 Malayalam, Media One—covered the calamity with 24/7 coverage, many of them well past midnight, even after the rescue ops halted for the day. News portals like TheNewsMinute too chipped in with valuable coverage.

News anchors and reporters did it sans sensationalism and without resorting to hyperbole. In fact, many news channels like Mathrubhumi and Manorama had their own control rooms to not only act as helplines, but to also supplement the government machinery by relaying messages and coordinating with the state apparatus. Mathrubhumi channel had also lost their local correspondent KK Saji and Thiruvalla bureau driver Bipin Babu when the boat they were travelling in capsized during flood coverage towards the end of July. Almost all news channels skipped ad breaks and commercials to beef up their coverage—on their own volition.

Nisha Purushothaman, an anchor with Manorama News, says they have been working without shifts and hardly got any sleep in the last 12 days. “Many of our male reporters have been sleeping in the open while reporting and we have been working without any break. As individuals, many of us are running relief camps or contributing stuff.”

Thiruvananthapuram MP, Shashi Tharoor, even stepped into the Asianet newsroom to commend their efforts. He tweeted: “Dropped into the newsroom of @asianetnewstv to commend them on their excellent 24×7 coverage of the #KeralaFloods. They pulled all commercials & ad breaks to cover the unfolding crisis in a remarkable demonstration of commitment to news above profit. May our media ever improve!”

Palakkad MP MB Rajesh explains that only when the national media covers an event does the gravity of the situation is brought to the immediate attention of everyone in the country, including the parliamentarians. “In Parliament, when it is in session, the matters of public importance are discussed during zero hour. And these matters of public importance are usually set by the media; what is given importance by the media,” says Rajesh. “When nearly a million people are in refugee camps and hundreds dead and if this does not count as news then what makes news? What we are seeing is a degeneration of a news sense and alienation of the media from ground reality.” That the political newspeak failed in their duty, or should we say that they succeeded in marginalising Kerala is a point to be discussed at length after the floods have abated.

C R Neelakandan, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Kerala Convenor, does not mince words when he points out that the attitude of the national media is to toe the line of the central government. “The coverage of Delhi AAP government is similar to the way they have covered the Kerala floods. When AAP leaders were arrested it made it to the front pages of the national media but when the cases were dismissed by the courts it was totally ignored by the media. Either they did not take things in Kerala seriously, or they deliberately ignored the alarming situation here. Kerala floods increased gradually, and there was much time to critique the government both the NDMA and the SDMA’s preparedness, but the media failed.”

On August 15, as floods deluged large parts of the state, most in Delhi media were busy with primetime debates on the Prime Minister’s speech. It is another matter that all of them came to know by that evening that former Prime Minister Vajpayee was on life support and was going to be pronounced dead any moment. On August 16 and 17, when Kerala was going through the worst, these channels were busy paying tributes to the former Prime Minister round-the-clock with the floods getting relegated to a mere headline. Channels like NDTV did their bit, but even that was more of an exception to the general trend.

“The divide between Delhi and the rest of India was apparent given the round-the-clock coverage for the AB Vajpayee funeral. While this was a legitimate news story, surely the floods in Kerala deserved equal, if not more, play. Since then, Delhi media has been trying to play catch up,” Sunit Arora, a senior journalist, noted.

While the national media is supposed to operate in a free environment, it is evident that the electronic media is behaving like an extension of the Prasar Bharti—following the cues of the establishment on a daily basis. While the coverage of Kerala floods or the lack thereof might be an editorial call, this decision smacks of political and revenue concerns. It may not be inappropriate to say that some of these channels and news anchors take their job as propagandists of the establishment a tad too seriously.
To quote George Orwell, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, then all else follows.”

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