Dull and disappointing
What started as an exposé has degenerated into routine, superficial reporting. Where exactly did the electronic media slip up in the coverage of the Gujarat carnage? ZIYA US SALAM ruminates.
Tears of sorrow and innocent laughter ... a poignant picture as Gujarat burned. Pics. by Gurinder Osan (AP), Sebastian D'Souza (AFP) and Siddharth Darshan Kumar (AP).
INDEPENDENT INDIA'S coverage of the pogrom in Gujarat first of its kind to be televised has exposed the shortcomings of the national media. After an intrepid start, which saw satellite channels like STAR News, Aaj Tak, Zee News, Sahara and BBC send their own teams to cover the violence from the worst affected areas of the State to give the viewers horrific scenes of middle-class women collecting ammunition for the battle ahead and otherwise smooth-talking, accomplished people driving down their Marutis to loot electronic items from hitherto splendid showrooms, the viewers have been short-changed.
Initially, the viewers were shocked. This was the first televised, even live show of a systematic attempt at ethnic cleansing. And disconcertingly in some quarters, the electronic media had even given up the garb of maintaining social equanimity by identifying the killers and the killed. No quarters asked. No inch conceded. As a number of political leaders from the ruling dispensation ended up with saffron, oops, red faces - and in many cases, bloodied hands, middle-class Indians, sitting far removed from the sites of never-jangling tragedy began to laud the brave, if at times, reckless reporting. Even as the channels got into a competition of sorts to nail the State Government's lie of having made adequate measures to stop the violence - STAR News actually showed a stretch of some 20 km where no policeman could be sighted and which was soon to lapse into a smouldering cauldron that trapped more than 60 lives - the viewers were disturbed, their conscience shaken.
And as Aaj Tak showed glimpses of the media van being made the target of fury by Bajrang Dal and VHP members, not to forget the innumerable dargahs and the charred remains of the bodies in Godhra, Baroda and Ahmedabad, it was a classic case of a picture speaking a thousand words. We were numbed. But silently thanked the brave work of the professionals who risked their lives and limbs to give us an authentic picture of the State - remember those shots of Rajdeep Sardesai reporting from a lane in Ahmedabad with stones flying all around?
However, it was not to last. For whatever reason. The initial brush with the tragedy over, almost all the channels launched their campaign to find out the reasons for the violence. And in doing so soft-pedalled on the issue. The statements of political leaders and not the actual tragedy became the lead stories for all the channels. For days on end it was the politburo meeting of the Telugu Desam Party and the statements of the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, which occupied the top slot. Yet again, the frequent occurrence of the violence robbed it of the shock value. Yet again, human death became mere statistics for the media.
Incidentally, the same channels had earlier pooh-poohed the attempts of the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, of restoring normalcy by citing the diminishing death graph in the State. "More than 100 people died on Saturday. On Sunday, the figure was down to less than 70 and by Monday things were under control with less than two dozen people having died," or so had been claimed as a mark of restoring order. Yet the media was guilty of the same offence. When scores of people had perished in the initial round of violence, there were umpteen shots of pillage and plunder. But when the number declined - only relatively speaking - it became just a footnote for most channels. What newspapers do by carrying an item in a single column on the inside pages, the channels did by taking the news item in the middle of their usual bulletins after a break. Following Goa and the West Indies was the reporting of mayhem. "There is more to come on Gujarat. Please do not go away," was the oft-heard line.
In between when the opportunity came to nail the man widely held responsible for the violence, STAR and Aaj Tak let him go almost scot-free, the latter treating him with kid gloves in its Sunday evening bulletin. While Sonia Verma and compatriots embarrassed him by screening clippings of the violence, Aaj Tak did nothing of the sort. Prabhu Chawla was almost deferential. About the only time Mr. Modi was asked a pointed question was when he claimed to have visited rehabilitation camps to give comfort to the affected. "Are they Muslim camps or are they peopled by Hindu victims?" was a not-so-polite question. Mr. Modi, however, was allowed to get away with the usual "we regard all the victims as just victims and do not segregate them on the basis of religion."
And then came into focus another anomaly. The electronic media was obsessed with riots. But as it sat down taking stock of the situation, it willy-nilly played into the hands of the Hindutva lobby. After reporting with zest on many punishable offences and the lack of adequate response from the State, Zee News decided to keep the issue on the backburner and focussed on how this time, Muslims were attacked by Hindus across all categories. Something similar was stated on Manoj Raghuvanshi's chat show on Sabe TV by a prominent Bajrang Dal leader. And the theory of Newton was given a free run with lopsided attempts at finding the equation. This is exactly what the RSS brigade had been claiming all these years. The usual insular, exclusivist theory of all coming under the Hindu umbrella to the exclusion of Semitic religions was given a dignified revival.
The channels sat down to construct their own reality, which mirrored to them that the Muslims were attacked not by high-caste and high-powered Patels alone but also by dispossessed Harijans and tribals too. This pernicious ideological thrust brought back memories of a few years ago when a BJP MP started a Ghar Vapasi programme to reconvert those who had adopted Christian faith and to include tribals within the Hindu fold. In fact, in more than one bulletin, STAR News focussed on how the Dalits had attacked Muslims this time and how one disadvantaged group, Dalits, had aligned with the advantaged group, Patels, for ideological moorings. The attempted parallel willy-nilly consolidated the myth of the Hindu monolith.
Then came the blatant neglect of the human dimension of the violence. True, all the channels, particularly Zee and STAR covered the conditions of the camps with extensive footage, none of them deemed it fit to disclose up some heart-warming stories which would rekindle the faith of the affected viewers. Even as discussions were launched on the role of the Patels and the Dalits in the riots and many shows brought victims of violence to the screen, they all went into a collective amnesia about positive stories. Barring a stray story of a Kaithal mosque being rebuilt or sundry Hindu families giving shelter to Muslims, stories from the ground level were almost zero. For instance, in a relief camp in Dasej area, a Harijan youth was the only literate man in the region. He became the in-charge of the camp that housed more than 200 victims. Still, it found mention only in the reports compiled by the NGOs and other monitoring bodies and nowhere else. Similarly, the attempts of organisations like Vishwa Gram Sanstha and Citizens Initiative, which doled out free kitchen kits to many victims or the Zakat Foundation of India which helped in bringing life back to an even keel for small-time businessmen were all ignored with one brush - NGOs have been working on a war footing in the State!
Even when the Gram organised mass marriages in the Panipur relief camp or the Zakat Foundation sent its gynaecologists to help pregnant women in the camps, the electronic media chose to look elsewhere.
Obviously, good news is not so good news for the media.
Similarly in programme after programme many victims alleged the involvement of the local political leaders, even their MLAs in the violence. The media faithfully reproduced their quotes, even gave them an opportunity to wipe their tears on the screen.
Yet no channel deemed it fit to get across to the accused, ask them searching questions.
Clearly, the electronic media that began with a wide appreciation of the coverage of Gujarat violence, has not been able to sustain the tempo.
And like ever, barely skimmed the surface. Nothing in-depth, nothing beyond the superficial.
As in the case of the Sufi dargahs which were reportedly destroyed or burnt. No attempt was made to tell the viewers anything beyond the obvious.
That many of these dargahs were of the Sufis who had opposed Aurangzeb's bigoted policies and treated their Sikh and Maratha followers with compassion was not even mentioned anywhere.
How such a revelation would have opened the eyes of the many who had gone astray! Unfortunately, for the electronic media what you see is what you get, seems to be the credo. Which is not good enough.
Send this article to Friends by