“For me as an editor, there is a compelling case for engaging with poverty. Increasing education and literacy is related to increasing the size of my readership. Our main audiences are indeed drawn from the middle classes, business and policymakers. But these groups cannot live in isolation. The welfare of the many is in the interests of the people who read the Daily Star.”
So says Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. I quoted him in my presentation to the orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development, held in Colombo on 24 September 2016.
Alas, many media gatekeepers in Sri Lanka and across South Asia don’t share Anam’s broad view. I can still remember talking to a Singaporean manager of one of Sri Lanka’s first private TV stations in the late 1990s. He was interested in international development related TV content, he told me, “but not depressing and miserable stuff about poverty – our viewers don’t want that!”
Most media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have narrowly defined poverty negatively. Those media that occasionally allows some coverage of poverty mostly skim a few selected issues, doing fleeting reporting on obvious topics like street children, beggars or poverty reduction assistance from the government. The complexity of poverty and under-development is hardly investigated or captured in the media.
Even when an exceptional journalist ventures into exploring these issues in some depth and detail, their media products also often inadvertently contain society’s widespread stereotyping on poverty and inequality. For example:
Black and white images are used when colour is easily available (as if the poor live in B&W).
Focus is mostly or entirely on the rural poor (never mind many poor people now live in cities and towns).
Under this, 20 competitively selected journalists – drawn from print, broadcast and web media outlets in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages – are to be given a better understanding of the many dimensions of poverty.
These Media Fellows will have the opportunity to research and produce a story of their choice in depth and detail, but on the understanding that their media outlet will carry their story. Along the way, they will benefit from face-to-face interactions with senior journalists and development researchers, and also receive a grant to cover their field visit costs.
I am part of the five member expert panel guiding these Media Fellows. Others on the panel are senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera; Chief Editor of Daily Express newspaper Hana Ibrahim; Chief Editor of Echelon biz magazine Shamindra Kulamannage; and Consultant Editor of Sudar Oli newspaper, Arun Arokianathan.
At the orientation workshop, Shamindra Kulamannage and I both made presentations on media coverage of poverty. Mine was a broad-sweep exploration of the topic, with many examples and insights from having been in media and development spheres for over 25 years.
Fasting for a personal or public interest cause is a very old tradition in India. Today, social activists of all colours and hue resort to fasting — but not everyone evokes the same interest and coverage in the media. In a previous column, I looked at how and why the anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare has become the darling of the Indian media. In my latest Ravaya column published on 2 October 2011, I look at two other fasts: one by Swami Nigamananda, who died in June calling for a stop to sand-mining in the Ganges River, and woman activist Irom Sharmila in Manipur who is engaged in the longest fast in the world, 11 years and counting…
This 71-year-old Gandhian is the new face of anti-corruption activism in India.
His name is Kisan Bapat Baburao Hazare, but he is popularly known as Anna Hazare. He is an Indian social activist who is giving voice to mass sentiment against pervasive corruption that has shocked Indian society in recent months.
On 5 April 2011, Anna Hazare started a Satyagraha, or a fast unto death, to pressurise the Government of India to enact a strong anti-corruption law that will establish a Lokpal (ombudsman) with the power to deal with corruption in public offices. The fast led to nationwide protests in support of Hazare. It ended four days laater, on 9 April 2011, with the government agreeing to all of his demands: it issued a gazette notification on formation of a joint committee headed by senior minister Pranab Mukherjee to draft an effective Lokpal Bill.
Anna Hazare has a long involvement in rural development, self reliance and anti-corruption work. In 1991, he launched the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan (BVJA), or People’s Movement against Corruption.
For more information, I want to share what two Indian journalist friends have produced about this remarkable man.
As she notes: “The media attention has encouraged more middle class citizens to come out on the streets holding candles, carrying placards, shouting slogans, singing songs and even fasting in sympathy with Hazare. The numbers are modest but the buzz on social networking sites as well as media attention makes it appear larger.”
This is an extract from a half-hour documentary film that Pradip Saha made for the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) India in 2000, which looked at the nexus between corruption, environment and natural resource management in India. It ends with this segment on Anna mobilising the grassroots against this scourge.
My friend Kalpana Sharma just stepped down after serving on the Panos South Asia board for over a decade. The Executive Director A S Panneerselvan asked me to write a personalised piece felicitating her. Part of this was read at the annual meeting of the Board held in Dhaka last weekend. Here’s the full essay — a couple of mutual friends who read it say it isn’t too eulogistic! Now you can decide for yourself…
* * * * *
The Curious Ms Sharma of Mumbai
I knew Kalpana Sharma from her by-line long before I met her in person. Now, more than a dozen years after we became friends, she remains an inspiration and a role model.
Kalpana has been a path-finder and trail-blazer in journalism that cares. She has set the gold standard in investigating and critiquing development in the Indian media. Today, she continues her nearly four decades of association with the Indian media as a respected columnist, journalist and writer. Her stock in trade is a mix of curiosity, sense of social justice, wanderlust and a deep passion for people and issues. She is living proof that quality journalism can be pursued even in these turbulent and uncertain times for the mainstream, corporatised media.
Kalpana has been covering the ‘other India’ that is largely ignored by the Indian media. Its denizens are some 456 million people living under the global poverty line of $1.25 per day — a third of the world’s poor. (If they declared independence, they would immediately become the world’s third most populous nation.) Kalpana’s reporting from the ‘Ground Zero’ of many disasters and conflict zones has highlighted the multiple deprivations of these people living on the margins of survival.
For many such communities, a headline-creating event is just the latest episode in their prolonged and silent suffering. The media pack that descends on them after a sudden development can’t seem very different from the assorted politicians who turn up periodically during election campaigns. For too long, the grassroots have been treated merely as a grazing ground for stories or votes.
Kalpana doesn’t hesitate to be part of the media pack when duty calls, but once in the field, she sees connections often missed by other journalists looking for a quick sound byte or dramatic image. Unlike some news hounds, she doesn’t exploit the misery of affected people (“Hands up who’s poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!”). And she returns to the same locations months or years later to follow up.
Here is a passage that sums up her views on the subject: “Much of disaster reporting sounds and reads the same because the reporters only see what is in front of them, not what lies behind the mounds of rubble, figuratively speaking. What was this region before it became this disaster area? How were social relations between different groups? What was its history? What were its relations with the state government? Was it neglected or was it favoured? How important was it to the politics of the state?”
Kalpana has been asking such probing questions all her professional life. And it’s not just in the rural hinterland of India that Kalpana has travelled extensively listening and talking to people from all walks of life. Living in the world’s second most populous city Mumbai, she has been equally concerned with its burning issues of urban poverty, gender disparity, environmental mismanagement and governance.
In her quest for untold human stories, Kalpana has taken a particular interest in the plight of poor women. She has written many authentic and moving stories about women who struggle on the margins of the margin. A recurrent theme in her writing is how invisible ‘superwomen’ hold the social fabric together in much of India. Many communities and production systems –ranging from domestic work and child care to waste disposal and farming – would simply grind to a halt if these unseen and unsung women took even a single day off. In reality, of course, they just can’t afford such luxuries.
Kalpana’s column The Other Half, which started in The Indian Express and now appears in The Hindu, is a regular eye-opener. She takes a current topic – from politics, culture, sport or environment — and explores its gender dimensions. She does so by carefully blending facts, personal insights and opinion that makes her writing very different to the rhetorical shrill of gender activists.
Make no mistake: Kalpana is an activist in her own right, and one of the finest in modern India. It’s just that her approach is more subtle, rational and measured – and in the long run, wholly more effective. Long ago, she found how to balance public interest journalism with social activism. This is one more reason why I look up to her.
In her writing, television appearances and public speaking, Kalpana stays well within the boundaries of good, old-fashioned journalism based on its A, B and C: accuracy, balance and credibility. In my view, she enriches the mix by adding a ‘D’ and ‘E’: depth and empathy. Without these qualities, mere reporting is sterile and dispassionate.
And once we get to know her, we also discover the ‘F’ in Kalpana Sharma: she is a fun-loving, cheerful woman who doesn’t take herself too seriously. We can count on her to be adventurous, enthusiastic and endlessly curious.
Cultivating these attributes would certainly enrich any journalist. I can’t agree more when Kalpana says (in her chapter to a recent book on environmental journalism in South Asia): “Journalists are good or bad, professional or unprofessional. I am not sure if other labels, such as ‘environmental’ or ‘developmental’, ought to be tagged on to journalists.”
I hope Kalpana has no retirement plans. She has earned a break after a dozen years on the Board of Panos South Asia. But we want her to remain a guiding star – a bundle of energy that shines a light into the Darkness, and helps make sense of the tumult and frenzy that surrounds us.
“This year alone, more than 500,000 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth. That’s one woman missing every minute of every day. We call these women ‘missing’ because their deaths could have been avoided. In fact, 80 per cent of maternal deaths could be averted if women had access to essential maternal health services.
“We know where and how these women are dying, and we have the resources to prevent these deaths. Yet, maternal mortality is still one of the most neglected problems internationally.”
Unfortunately, critical issues like these often don’t make the news – or worse, are relegated to the background as inevitable. As Joseph Stalin said in a different context, one death is a tragedy; a million deaths a mere statistic.
The challenge to the development community is to go beyond simply counting deaths in cold, clinical terms. UNICEF has recently released a two minute video, “Missing Mothers” as a tool for international development professionals to use in raising awareness of the issue of mothers dying needlessly.
Having a baby is both a very natural process and a joyous occasion for the parents and extended family concerned. Yet having a baby still remains one of the biggest health risks for millions of women worldwide.
As Unicef’s 2009 State of the World’s Children report reminded us recently, 1,500 women die every day in the world due to complications arising during pregnancy and childbirth. The chances of a woman in developing countries dying before or during childbirth are 300 times greater than for a woman in an industrialised country like the United States. Such a gap does not exist in any other social indicator.
She noted: “The solution has been known for years. The problem is the will to make it work. We also know that the solution would benefit everyone, not just women. Yet, affordable and accessible health care, for instance, has not received the thrust that is needed.”
The Missing Women video suggests to activists and campaigners that action can start with five steps: 1. Educate girls, young women and yourself; 2. Respect their rights; 3. Empower them to participate; 4. Invest in maternal health; 5. Protect against violence and abuse. The Unicef website, meanwhile, lists 10 ways in which concerned individuals can make a difference.
All very commendable and necessary — but not sufficient. With all the good intentions in the world, Unicef’s experts and officials come across as, well, detached and geeky. They don’t connect well enough to the real world people whose needs and interests they are genuinely trying to serve. Their messages are lost somewhere in their precise terms, jargon and endless acronyms.
Just take, for example, the very phrase of maternal mortality itself. Precise but also very stiff and dry. Who outside the medical and development circles uses such terms in conversation? When I write or make films about the issue, I prefer to call it ‘mothers dying needlessly while having babies’. Yes, it’s more wordy and perhaps less exacting. But most ordinary people would get what I’m talking about.
If the jargon-ridden language reads dry in text, it completely puts off people when they watch such words being spoken on video. Such films may pander to the Narcissism of Unicef mandarins, but they completely flop in terms of public communication and engagement.
This is the same point I made in October 2008 when commenting on the Unicef-inspired first Global Handwashing Day: “Passion used to be the hallmark of UNICEF during the time of its legendary executive director James Grant, who strongly believed in communicating messages of child survival and well-being. He gave UNICEF a head start in working with the media, especially television.”
Jim Grant’s deputy, journalist Tarzie Vittachi, who came over to the UN children’s agency after a stint at the UN population fund, used to say: “Governments don’t have babies; people do”. We might extend that to: inter-governmental agencies don’t have babies; real women do. That may be why Unicef insists on delivering its life-saving messages so riddled in politically and scientifically correct, but so sterile language.
Unicef’s YouTube channel has a number of short videos related to what they insist on calling maternal mortality. Here’s an example where Unicef’s Chief of Health Dr. Peter Salama says it’s really an unconscionable number of deaths, and a human tragedy on a massive scale:
We have now passed the half way mark, but progress has been patchy and unimpressive. And it will remain so as long as the UN agencies and other development players insist on peddling jargon and acronyms. Considering the issues of life and death involved here, we must view bad communication as a killer — joining the ranks of unsafe drinking water and violence against women and girls.
Writing an editorial for SciDev.Net in September 2005, I noted: “All development workers and UN officials should take a simple test: explain to the least technical person in your office the core message and relevance of your work. Many jargon-using, data-wielding, acronym-loving development workers would probably fail this test. But unless development-speak is translated into simpler language, the MDGs will remain a buzzword confined to development experts and activists.”
I don’t believe in ghosts, but it’s time to bring back the spirits of Jim Grant and Tarzie Vittachi to Unicef to again humanise the agency so mired in its own ‘geekspeak’. The intellectual rigours of evidence-based, scientific analysis must be balanced with clarity and accessibility. It’s fine to be informed by science, but learn to say it simply, clearly and concisely.
The lives of half a million women and millions of children depend on it.
In his long years of journalism in India, my friend Darryl D’Monte had faced all sorts of questions and situations. But this was one question that stunned and left him speechless for a while.
A visiting Canadian TV crew made this request in the 1970s, when Darryl was resident editor of The Times of
India. He was giving them some insights on the extent of poverty in his city of Bombay, since renamed as Mumbai. The crew had heard of the deliberate maiming of street children, before being employed as beggars. A disabled child would evoke more sympathy, increasing the daily collection for gangsters operating them from behind the scenes.
Darryl wasn’t willing to be associated with this ‘staging’. “Well, it’s going to happen anyway,” was the film crew’s cynical answer.
Now, fast forward 30 years to the present. At one point in the British-Indian movie Slumdog Millionaire, we see a young girl being blinded by a gangster who shelters and feeds a small army of children — all unleashed on Mumbai on a daily basis to tug at the heart strings of its teeming millions.
The film’s protagonist Jamal escapes the same fate by making a mad dash for freedom with his brother, Salim. But years later, they cross the gangster’s path again, with devastating results – for him.
Set and filmed in India, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a young uneducated man from the slums of Mumbai who appears on the Indian TV’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Kaun Banega Crorepati) and does so well to reach the final question that the game show host and the police suspect him of cheating.
Some Indians feel their country’s ugly underbelly has been magnified by locating and filming part of the story in the slums of Mumbai. But director Danny Boyle, who sees his film as a Dickensian tale, says he shot in real, gritty locations “to show the beauty and ugliness and sheer unpredictability” of the city.
Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, who wrote the 2005 novel Q and A on which the movie is based, has a similar view. “This isn’t social critique,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “It’s a novel written by someone who uses what he finds to tell a story. I don’t have firsthand experience of betting on cricket or rape or murder. I don’t know if it’s true that there are beggar masters who blind children to make them more effective when they beg on the streets. It may be an urban myth, but it’s useful to my story.”
To me, Slumdog Millionaire feels like a cross between the acclaimed Brazilian slum movie City of God (Portuguese name: Cidade de Deus, 2002) and Quiz Show, the 1994 American historical drama film about TV quiz scandals in the 1950s.
City of God is a Brazilian crime drama film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, released in its home country in 2002 and worldwide in 2003. It was adapted by Bráulio Mantovani from the 1997 novel of the same name written by Paulo Lins.
The film’s depiction of narcotic drug rings, hold-ups, street violence and police corruption may not have been what the upper middle class Brazilians wanted to showcase to the rest of the world, but the film’s stark if grisly authenticity resonated with movie audiences around the world. Most of the actors were residents of favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, such as Vidigal and the Cidade de Deus itself. City of God became one of the highest-grossing foreign films released in the United States up to that time.
The makers of Slumdog Millionaire adopted a similar approach. Its co-director Loveleen Tandan says she likes to get as close to reality as possible. This drove her to the slums of East Bandra to look for young children who resembled the protagonists in the story.
As she recalled in a recent interview with Tehelka: “I was very keen to get real slum kids, which is why I convinced them (producers) to do one-third of the scenes in Hindi. I made a scratch tape with real street kids. The team was surprised that Hindi actually made it brighter and more alive.”
Indeed, Slumdog doesn’t feel like a ‘foreign film’ despite it having a fair number of English subtitles, which only enhance the overall cinematic experience.
But how realistic should films try to become, before the local realities are distorted or local sensibilities are affected? Where does documentary end and drama begin? These questions will continue to be debated across India and elsewhere while Slumdog enthralls millions on its first theatrical release.
Feature film makers can exercise their creative license far more than factual film makers. I doubt if the creators of authentic, close-to-the-ground movies like City of God and Slumdog Millionaire set out with any specific social agenda. They are in the business of entertainment, and just happen to find plenty of drama in real life in places like urban slums. We might argue that in the right hands, dramatised movies can draw mass attention to development issues and challenges far more effectively than the often dull and dreary documentaries.
“If through (the movie) the world gets a peek at an India inhabited by millions of people who continue to live their lives without clean water, sanitation or electricity, what is the problem?” asks another Indian friend and long-time Mumbai resident Kalpana Sharma.
In a perceptive essay titled Shantytowns of the Mind, written in The Indian Express in early January 2009 before she saw the film, Kalpana flagged important concerns: “Slumdog Millionaire’s success raises some deeper questions. How do we depict poverty as writers, filmmakers, journalists? Is it fair to expect us all the time to give a full, balanced, sensitive portrayal? Or is it inevitable that we write, film, for our audiences? And if, as a byproduct, people are sensitized, so be it. Also, if they are annoyed, so be it. If we are considered exploitative, so be it.”
Kalpana speaks with authority, and not just because she lives in the megacity of Mumbai (population: 13 million and rising) which, she points out, is half made up of slums. In 2000, she wrote a book titled Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum. Far from being a cold, clinical analysis of facts, figures and trends, it’s a book about the extraordinary people who live there, “many of whom have defied fate and an unhelpful State to prosper through a mix of backbreaking work, some luck and a great deal of ingenuity”.
Kalpana ends her essays with these words: “In the end you realise as a writer, a journalist or a filmmaker, that the best you can do is to shine a torch, a searchlight, on an entrenched problem. But the solution will not be found merely by that illumination. For that, there are many more steps to be taken.
“Slumdog Millionaire has focused its lens on the children of India’s slums through a work of fiction. What we do to change their future is the non-fiction that has yet to be written.”
“The attack on Mumbai by ten highly trained gunmen on the night of Wednesday, November 26, and the drama that followed over the next 60 hours, was physically confined to one corner of a very big city. But it extended its ambit to the rest of the city, the country and the world because of the non-stop media coverage.
“For two days and three nights, television channels gave blanket coverage to the drama around the siege of two hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, and the Oberoi and Trident Hotels, as well as Nariman House in Colaba, a synagogue and centre for a Jewish sect. And the entire country watched in horror and fascination.”
This is how my friend Kalpana Sharma, one of the most respected journalists in India, looks back at the momentous events that took place in her home city of Mumbai from 26 to 30 November 2008. In a thought-provoking analysis published on Tehelka.com, Kalpana assesses 60 hours of continuous media coverage of the Mumbai crisis and notes the significant gaps.
As Mumbai and India recover from the daring attack, the media continue to play the dramatic images over and over. I was in Hyderabad, in southern India (more than 700 km away from Mumbai) for a few days from November 30 and saw this first hand – especially on India’s several dozen 24/7 TV news channels in English and many local languages. Even before arriving in India, I was following the unfolding events on India’s leading English news channel NDTV 24/7 and their website.
I could see that the high adrenaline that every channel and reporter drew on during the 60 hours of drama has now changed into a mix of patriotism, jingoism and an incredible suspension of journalistic ethics and norms. This makes Kalpana’s reflections extremely timely and important.
She is not an armchair critic of the media, and understands the tough challenges that reporters and their gatekeepers face on a daily basis. “When such developments hit a city, it is understandable that there is a time lag before the media, particularly the electronic media, can react,” she acknowledges in her essay, and asks: “The electronic media, in particular, has to ask whether at a time when they were the only source of information for most of the city, and indeed the country, there should have been some restraint placed on information given out.”
I have met some professors of mass communication who have never been inside a news room and well-meaning media activists whose naive idealism makes me laugh. Kalpana, in contrast, counts over three decades of mainstream media experience and retired last year as Deputy Editor of The Hindu newspaper.
Read Kalpana’s full essay here: Unpacking The Pixel
Others inside and outside India are also offering critical analysis of media’s role in the siege of Mumbai, or India’s 26/11 as it’s being called. One is by Anjali Deshpande and S K Pande of the Delhi Union of Journalists who have written an interesting commentary in the South Asian mediawatch website, The Hoot.
They acknowledge how “24×7 reporting of terror has indeed been has also been a traumatic experience for our colleagues” and go on to say that “Some of them really did a good job under the circumstances”. But their piece is are less charitable than Kalpana when they say: “If there is one thing the electronic media helped in particular to do in the last three days was to bolster the confidence of terrorists and to give them a sense of achievement far greater than their action may have provided them.”
They note: “The initial role of some of the media was to grab the eyeballs rather than ask questions and reflect all facets of life as they unfold without adding to the tension strife and trauma in such situations. In some cases the ethics evolved over the years was thrown into the dustbin. Add to it all the fact, that when some restraint began more than a touch of jingoism took over.”
There are dozens of other debates underway in the passionately argumentative Indian society, some of which are being conducted in the newspapers, news magazines, on the air and online. One that especially interested me was the role elitism played in how the media covered the siege of Mumbai.
The attacks took place at multiple locations in the heart of Mumbai, which included two leading hotels, a synagogue and Jewish centre and the main train station. But not all attacks lasted as long, and certainly not all of them received equal coverage.
Gnani Sankaran, a writer based in Tamil Nadu, southern India, asks some pertinent questions in a blog post titled Hotel Taj: Icon of whose India? “Watching at least four English news channels surfing from one another during the last 60 hours of terror strike made me feel a terror of another kind. The terror of assaulting one’s mind and sensitivity with cameras, sound bites and non-stop blabbers. All these channels have been trying to manufacture my consent for a big lie called — Hotel Taj the icon of India.
He adds: “It is a matter of great shame that these channels simply did not bother about the other icon that faced the first attack from terrorists – the Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station. CST is the true icon of Mumbai. It is through this railway station hundreds of Indians from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamilnadu have poured into Mumbai over the years, transforming themselves into Mumbaikars and built the Mumbai of today along with the Marathis and Kolis
“But the channels would not recognise this. Nor would they recognise the thirty odd dead bodies strewn all over the platform of CST. No Barkha Dutt went there to tell us who they were. But she was at Taj to show us the damaged furniture and reception lobby braving the guards. And the TV cameras did not go to the government-run JJ hospital to find out who those 26 unidentified bodies were. Instead they were again invading the battered Taj to try in vain for a scoop shot of the dead bodies of the Page 3 celebrities.
“In all probability, the unidentified bodies could be those of workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh migrating to Mumbai, arriving by train at CST without cell phones and PAN cards to identify them. Even after 60 hours after the CST massacre, no channel has bothered to cover in detail what transpired there.” Read his full blog post: Whose India, whose icon?
He echoes the same point as Gnani Sankaran about the Victoria Terminus being much more iconic than the Taj hotel, and comes to the same conclusion: “I can’t remember the last time that social class so clearly defined the coverage of a public event, or one in which people spoke so unselfconsciously from their class positions. The English news channels became mega-churches in which hotel-going Indians found catharsis and communion. Person after person claimed the Taj as home. Memories of courtship, marriage, celebration, friendship, the quick coffee, the saved-up-for snack, the sneaked lavatory visit, came together to frame the burning Taj in a halo of affection.”
In his closing para, Kesavan also touches on how the foreign media covered the Mumbai attacks: “English and American papers treated the terror attack as an assault on the West. The terrorists had, after all, specifically looked for American and British citizens to murder. Ironically, even as NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now put hotel guests at the heart of the horror and bumped train commuters to its periphery, older English-speaking peoples counted their dead and dimly regretted all Indian casualties as collateral damage. In that residual category, if nowhere else, the Indian dead remained one People.”
Another dimension in the media coverage following the Mumbai attacks is how it is affecting the relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers. As The Hindu reported on 1 December 2008: “The escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over the Mumbai attacks have led to the declaration of hostilities in unexpected quarters – Pakistani media has declared a virtual war on Indian media for its ‘knee-jerk’ finger-pointing across the border, and its unquestioning acceptance of the Indian government’s ‘Pakistan-link’ theory.”
Moderate journalists and media-watchers across South Asia are calling for more restraint, self-reflection and plain common sense. On 4 December 2008, Himal Southasian – the independent and outspoken voice of South Asia – ran a special editorial which opened with these words:
“There is an attempt on to generate mass hysteria in India as television channels compete for ratings. The channels are using the Bombay attacks of last week in a dangerous game of TRP-upmanship which can well derail the political process and set back the India-Pakistan peace train. Going far beyond what is required of them even in times of crisis, some media houses are leading campaigns to get citizens to take pledges of patriotism. They are pushing a brittle, monochromatic vision of the resilient country we know as India.”
“Media might have brought the people closer but when nationalism rears its head, the beast of 24-hour television news also fuels conflict. This is where the commercial aspect comes in. When something big happens, the public seeks answers. The channels which cater to this need improve their ratings. Sensation sells. With viewers glued to the screens, channels keep them there with a continuous virtual reality show. They fill the time with speculative commentary, ‘expert’ guests and whatever footage is available. Sometimes such footage is repeated ad nauseum — like when the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, when the Marriott hotel was attacked, when the FIA building in Lahore was struck.”
She adds: “Some Indian channels are running the Pakistan factor like a movie trailer, complete with sound effects and watch-for-the-next-episode commentary. This obviously fuels Pakistani indignation. However, this indignation could be tempered by being less reactive and empathising with the Indians’ pain and grief that many Pakistanis share. Zealous commentators could also recall the times that their own media houses sensationalised an issue.
“Journalists may argue that they are just the messenger, reflecting official or public opinion. But the media must also question, and get people to think. The stakes are high in our nuclear-armed countries, in a post-9/11 world where the major players include armed and trained men around the world who subscribe to the ideology of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
Ordinary people outside the media industry have also started expressing their concern.
“Media on both sides of the border has stopped reporting and started indulging in senseless rants. The media, particularly in India seems to have thrown logic to the wind,” wrote Anand Bala from Bangalore, in a letter to the South Asian mediawatch website The Hoot. “The screaming for war on the Indian side has reached a din. The media is manufacturing consent for a war and manufacturing consent for the very people who they are blaming – the politicians.”
I would give the last word to Kalpana Sharma: “Media rarely pauses to analyse itself as it hurtles from one breaking story to another. But the Mumbai terror attack shows us that it is essential that reporters be trained to handle such extraordinary situations, that they learn the importance of restraint and cross-checking as at such times the media is the main source of information. Professionalism and accuracy will ensure that we don’t contribute to prejudice and panic.”