Media complicit in moral policing

IN Media Freedom | 04/04/2013
Mangalore journalist Naveen Soorinje, arrested while covering a moral police attack, spent 17 weeks in jail.
He tells GEETA SESHU media often approves of vigilantism, giving it a religious colour. Pix: Naveen Soorinje

Naveen Soorinje, the Mangalore-based television reporter who spent over four months in jail for covering a raid on a homestay by a Hindu fundamentalist group, appears cheerful and spirited at a meeting at the Bangalore Press Club on Tuesday. But he is also determined to speak up – about the plight of undertrials he met while in prison, the spread of communal and moral policing in coastal Karnataka, the media’s role in furthering a divisive agenda and the journalism he would like to be part of.

Soorinje, who worked in a local newspaper, Usha Kiran for six years before joining Kasturi Television, was inspired to take up journalism as a career when he came in contact with some journalists as a student activist. “Some of them became my friends and though I had graduated in commerce, journalism seemed like a good career,” he said.

Soorinje was arrested after he covered a raid by a local Hindu fundamentalist group, the Hindu Vedike on ‘Morning Star’, a homestay where a birthday party was being celebrated. Soorinje and another cameraperson arrived on the scene after receiving a tip-off about the raid. They found that there was no police presence at the site and tried to call the police, but couldn’t get through. When they entered with their cameras and began filming, they found the attackers were trying to beat up and even molest some of the girls present. Soorinje’s telecast, titled ‘Talibalisation of Mangalore’ was broadcast on his channel and picked up by other television channels.

Local police filed a case against the attackers but included Soorinje as one of the accused, charging him under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including "rioting with deadly weapons", "unlawful assembly", "criminal conspiracy", "using criminal force on a woman with the intention of outraging her modesty", "dacoity" and Section 2 (a) of the Karnataka Prevention of Destruction and Loss of Property Act 1981, and Sections 3 and 4 of The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986.

Soorinje was arrested on November 9, 2012 and, despite protests from local journalists and civil liberties groups in Mangalore and the state’s capital, Bengaluru, was denied bail. A nation-wide protest followed, demanding the dropping of charges against him but Soorinje only managed to get bail on March 18, 2013 and was released a couple of weeks ago. The Karnataka cabinet had decided to drop charges against him but with the state elections announced, this decision cannot be acted upon for fear of falling afoul of the Election Code. These are his views, expressed to the Hoot in an interview:

On rising fundamentalism

Early on, I began covering the growing tension between Hindus and other communities in Mangalore. Before Hindu fundamentalist groups began their systematic work in coastal Karnataka, the relations between people of different religious communities were not as bad as they are today. Today, the situation has worsened so much. Almost every week, there is some incident or the other. Some incidents come to the notice of the media but others don’t.

The incidents could be ‘minor’ – of youth of different religious communities sitting together and chatting, lovers from different communities, boys or girls sitting next to one another on a bus journey or even a couple having juice together.

The ‘moral’ policing did not extend to girls and boys of the same religious community spending time together, so the policing was clearly communal. For the vigilante groups, a Hindu girl even talking to a Muslim boy was an ‘immoral’ act.

On media’s role in moral policing

Media support for the vigilantism was, barring a few exceptions, absolute. The media played a major role in the growth of communal elements in coastal Karnataka. Very clearly, it took the side of the perpetuators and gave all acts of the vigilante groups a religious colour.

The moral high ground sought to be occupied and evangelistic notions of saviours of virtue and tradition of these vigilante groups was mirrored by media reports of their attacks. For instance, headlines in newspapers routinely referred to ‘dharmadetu’ and said those attacked should be happy they were getting ‘free’ education into religious principles and values! In another instance, when a raid by the local wings of the Durga Vahini and Bajrang Dal (Hindu fundamentalist organisations for women and men respectively) took place in a pub where some girls were found smoking, the headline and copy stressed that the smokers were ‘rescued’.

On lack of opposition to these attempts

The media’s role is deeply disturbing and attempts to discuss biased media coverage with colleagues have been completely futile, with sharp divides between journalists who aligned with one religious group or the other. Moreover, with the spread of the Hindutva agenda into villages and rural areas, it became even more difficult.

Muslim or Christian groups did try to counter the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and there were some attempts to bring in their own brand of fundamentalism, but these efforts were negligible and largely ineffectual.

On whether media promotes communalism to sell

In Mangalore, there was a definite increase in the number of television channels and in the print media. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say the media was using communalism to sell.

The media support for communal elements was not linked to TRPs or the selling of dramatic attacks of one community over the other. The media’s ideological support for the perpetuators of such attacks was very strong and most disturbing.

During the Church attacks of 2008, a photographer of a leading newspaper, actually snatched a lathi from a policeman present and began beating up the nuns present…

How jail gave him a new perspective

Being in jail was a huge learning experience for me because I experienced how cases can be fabricated and innocent people can be jailed. For years, I covered crime and I believed the police accounts of any incident. But I found that what I reported was contrary to reality. I was actually working as a police informer, not a journalist.

I want to change this way of practicing journalism. I want to start being a people’s informer.

The turning point was when I met a man accused of being a chain-snatcher in the sub-jail I was lodged in. I remember that the police announced that they had caught a very ‘big’ chain-snatcher who had several cases against him. Police said he used to snatch gold chains of women and run away. Police said they caught him red-handed when he was running away after robbing someone. All of us, me included, had covered the story.

To his surprise, when I met the same man in jail, he found that the man was disabled and had only one leg. Soorinje recalled that police had released photographs of the man and even uploaded the mug shots on their website but these were shots upto his waist. If a full-length photo was taken of the man, journalists would definitely ask police how the man ran away so fast on one leg!

Newspapers are so full of crime news and a closer reading would reveal that they are just police handouts. All it takes is for a journalist to do some extra legwork and meet the family of the accused or find out more information than that given by the police.

The stint in jail has only strengthened my resolve to become a better journalist. While I am all set to fight my case, I am also mentally prepared to go to jail and face a prison term.


(Note: While Soorinje understands English and Hindi, he replied to questions in Kannada and journalist Imran Khan translated the replies. Many thanks to him.  All efforts were made to ensure that nothing was lost in translation but errors, if any, are my responsibility).

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