Another country?

BY s r ramanujan| IN Media Practice | 01/11/2008
It was quite evident that the news managers of these channels perhaps thought the ghastly blasts in Assam were happening in a neighbouring country.
S R RAMANUJAN asks if the treatment would have been as matter-of-fact if these blasts had been in Delhi, Mumbai or Jaipur. Pix: Indian Express.

Quite some time ago, Dr Sanjoy Hazarika, presently the Director, Institute of North-East Studies, was going round various media houses in the country with a scheme for exchange of media professionals under the patronage of his NGO, not the present one. According to this scheme, journalists serving the newspapers in the North-East would work for a fixed period in the media houses in the mainland and in exchange, professionals from these newspapers would have the opportunity to work in the dailies in the North-East. According to Sanjay, this would help the journalists in the mainline media houses to understand the politics, culture, genuine demands and ethos of the people of North-East region better and vice–versa. He was hopeful that this would narrow the gap that existed between the people of the North-East and the rest of the country as better understanding and awareness among the journalists about the aspirations of the people would reflect in their professional inputs for the papers they served. Under this exchange programme, a couple of journalists did work in Eenadu group. But it happened to be a flash in the pan. A well-meaning effort did not take off. 


I was reminded of this when I saw the coverage of the October 30 serial blasts across the state of Assam taking a toll of 77 innocent lives and maiming more than 300. The media did not react in a manner that it should have, keeping in mind the most deadly nature of the blasts.  It was matter-of-fact coverage in almost all the national English channels when the state of Assam was literally burning. It was quite evident that the news managers of these channels perhaps thought the ghastly blasts were happening in a neighbouring country. CNN-IBN was most insensitive when it carried the bulletin slug "Good Evening India" in all their evening bulletins while reporting a major tragedy. What would have been the impact of such a callous approach on the people of Assam? Will the treatment be the same if such unfortunate incidents had happened, not that it has not happened, in Delhil, Mumbai, Jaipur?


Usually, the star anchors of the channels would troop into the studios whenever such a tragedy occurred or whenever there was a major new break. But on October 30, till the 9 PM prime bulletins, it was left to the juniors, with the top honchos otherwise busy,  to manage the show atleast in 3 channels that I could monitor – IBN, Times Now, and News X.  If my memory serves me right, at the time of  2006 Mumbai serial blasts in the local trains, it was a back-to-back coverage in most of the channels and even commercials were dropped. The same treatment was given by the 24-hour channels on October 29, 2005, when there were serial blasts two days before Diwali in the heart of Delhi. It is not clear whether it is logistical problem or attitudinal one. May be, it is both. That is the reason the event was treated just like another story with Gambhir, Anand, Raj Thackeray and Malegaon getting equal treatment atleast till 8.00 PM bulletin. News X deserves special mention. It devoted considerable time for an "exclusive" interview with the father of Grand Master Anand.


Amateurishness of reportage was blatant. Within a couple of hours of the blast, even before the bodies could be lifted and injured move to the hospitals,  a reporter in IBN came out with his own analysis. He was describing the change of demography in 11 districts of Lower Assam because of  immigrant Muslims and how this was used by the BJP and AGP to incite hatred against the immigrants. What happened was only a reaction to the BJP rhetoric. That was his revelation. The ticker was further confusing the viewers. "ULFA hand suspected", "New ULFA group trained in Bangladesh responsible", "ULFA denies" were some of the sub-heads in IBN, while Times Now was attributing it to "HuJI and Jamaat Islami" and probable Chinese involvement. Of course, the predictable statements from the Union Home Minister, and two Ministers of State for Home of condemnation, intelligence warning and the Chief Minister borrowing the phrase from Shivraj Patil on "actionable intelligence" were all there.


Times Now had a panel discussion at 9 PM with the usual suspects – Manish Tiwari, Tarun Vijay, Indira Goswamy, Mani Shankar Iyer. Though there was an introductory appeal not to politicise the issue, the participants did precisely the same. "Who let Assam burn" was the question but the discussion did not throw any light on the "who" factor. There was more heat than light. "Face-the-nation" is usually a hotch-potch with repeat news packages and a sprinkling of bytes and it doesn¿t deserve a mention.


Another usual suspect who dwells on issues of terrorism, B Raman, had described the situation better in his blog. He said "Everyone is clueless – the intelligence agencies, the police, the security forces, the political class. There is hardly any realisation of the seriousness of the situation in Assam. One can understand inadequacies and even incompetence, but one is alarmed by the total disinterest in Delhi in what is going on in Assam" This observation would apply to the media as well.


Even news portals like Rediff  had some perspective to offer on the event whether one agrees with it or not. M K Dhar, former Joint Director of IB, said on this portal that the fight for Assam by both Bangladeshs and Pakistan has been a long one and this is just another step to seek a claim on the State (of Assam)."


Coming to the print media, The Times of India gave comprehensive coverage with two inside pages fully devoted to the terror strike, though its editorial was wishy-washy. The Deccan Chronicle was better in its editorial comment with some teeth when it posed a question whether the Centre was sleeping. The Hindu will of course wait for a while to come out with its considered comment. The Hindustan Times ("Trial by Terror, this time it¿s Assam") wrote a pedestrian edit, with the usual homilies to the politicians.


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