Assam TV channels live off conflict

The political ownership is reflected in the coverage since allegiance to a political party colors objectivity and reality,

In Assam conflict and violence are ceaseless. Not surprising in a state that has since the early 1980s been caught in the quagmire of conflicting interests of at least nine active militant groups • from the pioneering United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to the more recently-formed All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA) -- whose agendas range from sovereignty and outright secession to autonomy and self-rule within the Indian constitution. Disruptive activities and ethnic clashes that affect ordinary lives are commonplace, counter-insurgency operations routine. 


Quite understandably then conflict makes for staple fare in local satellite news channels. On any day picked at random one will more often than not come across news of militant-security personnel encounters, blasts, arrest of militants, arms recovery, protests or even the aftermath of any violence breaking on all three local news channels. Assam in fact is the only state in the northeast that boasts of three private news stations • Northeast Television or NE TV set up in 2002 and News Live and DY365, both of which began beaming in 2008. (Until late last year the country's Television Audience Measurement system did not cover this state.)


Consider the programs aired on the three channels on October 19, 2009. NE TV began the day with the customary news and current affairs program 'Good morning NE', followed by fifteen-minute to half-hour news bulletins in Assamese, Dimasa, Nepali, Nagamese, English, Hindi, Bengali, Garo, Karbi, Rongmei Naga, Mizo, Kuki, Manipuri, Mishing, Nepali and Bodo -- apart from repeats bulletins in Assamese, English, Hindi and Bengali. 


On News Live other than half-hour and one-hour news bulletins in both Assamese and English spread over the day, were local news bulletins, current affairs, talk shows, infotainment and women's programs and lifestyle.


DY365 the youngest of the three channels also began with news and current affairs program Arunoday, followed one after the other by sports news, bulletins in English, Bengali, Assamese, Hindi, English and Bengali, a program on food, news in Assamese and Hindi, DY Aabeli (a program on fashion, beauty, vaastu, feng shui, home décor), Assamese news, Videsh (international news), a program on the markets, Guwahati (a current affairs program on the metro), Ajir Atithi (interview with a prominent personality), Assamese news, travel program Parikrama, bulletins in Assamese, Bengali and Hindi, music reality show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, and news in Assamese.  


And, though chosen at random, October 19 had a conflict-related story as top headlines on all three channels, meriting more than three minutes of content and footage on all • a huge arms and ammunition haul belonging to the banned ULFA in Sadiya, a town in upper Assam, and police revelation that five ULFA cadres arrested recently in Guwahati have claimed that the ULFA's 28th battalion is regrouping and planning a series of violent strikes in Assam. Evidently then all three local satellite channels, like most 24-hour TV news channels in India, would appear partial to conflict and violence, because they make interesting news stories. 


This is not surprising in a normally conflict-torn state like Assam. Only here it is the scale of violence that decides the length, tone and spread of coverage. In a state where men and women become victims of conflict every other day, there is a sense of ennui in the reporting of the arrest of a militant, arms recovery or even one or two deaths. These are usually presented as flash news, deserving of a top story slot but with less than a minute of footage and reporting in a half-hour news session. The time devoted to the October 19 news story on arms recovery for instance varied only between a minute and two across the channels.


 For news like the October 4, 2009 Bhimajuli massacre by the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) on the other hand the length of coverage is extensive, spreading over two to three days -- sometimes even more if public protests follow the occurrence. Apart from the breaking news flashing across screens there are live updates, live coverage of the scene of incident, interviews, hospital scenes, accounts of personal tragedy, follow-ups and commentaries. Continuing with the Bhimajuli massacre for example • even ten days after the violence on October 14, 2009 News Live did a follow-up story, a poignant three-minute feature on the plight of families of those killed. And although NE TV did not dwell on the aftermath of the incident, it did feature a one-minute content and footage the same day on a Communist party rally in Tezpur in protest against the Bhimajuli massacre.


The stance adopted by all news channels in response to the killing of innocent people in any separatist or even ethnic violence in Assam is indignation. And, this surfaces in the dramatic reading of the story by the anchor and coverage by the reporter on ground. However, giving shape to stories of conflict and violence means walking the tightrope of neutrality. And this is a challenge which television channels in Assam have not been able to take up very successfully.


This perhaps has much to do with the ownership of these news channels. Take the case of News Live, known to enjoy the blessings of the state Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Of the other two, NE TV is owned by dissident Congressman Matang Sing (now believed to be getting closer to his former party) and DY365 by local businesswoman Dipanita Jaiswal. The political ownership is reflected in television coverage since allegiance to a political party colors objectivity and reality which are the cornerstones of TV reporting. News Live is seen to take a righteous stance in favor of the government, in conflict situations harping continuously on"merciless killing" of"innocent people". This would explain in part the news story on the plight of families of those killed in the Bhimajuli incident that was aired ten days after the incident on October 14.


 DY365 and NETV regarded as at odds with the establishment, shape their conflict stories as a critical statement of the government's failure. Take October 14 for instance: even as News Live was airing the Bhimajuli aftermath story, DY365 was beaming one on the teachers strike against non-payment of two months' salary in the North Cachar Hills district of Assam, the appearance of former Dima Halom Daoga (DHD) chief Dulip Nunisa at the scene of strike and his statement blaming the government for neglecting the people and thereby"helping militancy flourish". On October 19 the channel again beamed a news story on the sorry state of the state health department. NETV, which has of late tied up with Asomiya Pratidin for news content has diluted its earlier strident anti-government stand.  


While reporting seems fair News Live is seen often to suppress the scale of violence, in terms of footage and content vis-a-vis the other two news channels. In shielding the government it appears more conservative in reporting while DY365 in criticizing the government appears more activist in approach. Take the instance of the NDFB massacre on October 4 • the channel was extremely restrained in its coverage of the mob violence on October 5 following the massacre, even as DY365 gleefully and continuously aired footage of the manifestation of public anger against the government for its failure to provide security to the people. Moreover, News Live in its hurry to be on the side of the government slipped on the fundamental rule of reporting • accuracy. Accuracy in reporting is the primary responsibility where facts are cross-checked and sources questioned.


On the day following the Bhimajuli massacre the channel reported that three ministers were visiting the site of violence when in reality the ministers had to perforce return from a particular police check post due to mob violence against the massacre. Accuracy was sacrificed in the rush to be first with the news, provide more sensational coverage and fulfill the political agenda. It is apparent here that the channel depended solely on press handouts and did not verify later on the round. Later, realizing the goof-up it did blank out the news but the harm had already been done. The channel in an analysis feature on the violence also picked at a facetious issue -- like why the opposition did not criticize the NDFB violence, deliberately blanking out stories that opposition leaders had actually make statements condemning the violence and that Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) president Chandramohan Patowary was the only political leader to visit the site of violence in less than 24 hours following the incident. 


All channels are seen as swimming with the tide, grasping at issues like separatist violence and conflict because it ensures a captive audience for a few days and hence raises TRPs. None of them serve to act as a catalyst for change, a dire need in a conflict-torn region. All the three channels lack maturity and in the rush to break news often resort to hyperbole, flash unchecked stories and even break the self-regulatory NBA guidelines. During the October 30, 2008 serial blasts in Assam for example ghoulish close-ups of the dead and injured without the mandatory mosaic continued to be beamed on the channels for a long time. Rookie reporters whose handling of such conflict incidents is at best gauche compound the problem. While reporting from the ground many statements, which probably are the reporters' own perception, are attributed to 'janasadharan' or the people.  


Television being a visual medium with instant reach has a much greater impact than any other media. And thus has greater responsibility to ensure that news, especially those relating to conflict, are covered as neutrally as possible.


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