Living with Information Imbalances

IN Media Practice | 23/05/2003
Excessive Information about north India is at the expense of the northeastpart of the country

As a nation, India has always been affected by imbalances in the flow of information particularly between regions like the northern parts of the country and the Northeast. While states like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan are information rich, in terms of space and coverage, the Northeastern states suffer from being information poor. This despite the fact that India has been a leading crusader in the global debate on a balanced international information flow that led to the formation of the McBride Commission by UNESCO in the 1970s. What was overlooked in that discourse was the fact that within the nation, India itself is a victim of information injustice. This reality was so well covered that the western world forgot to question UNESCO on the wisdom of India being a campaigner in the information flow debate. Even the McBride report that was tabled in the early 1980s did not address this issue.

Consider Northeast India-a region still reeling under the onslaught of underdevelopment.  The so-called national media has never really functioned as a true national media: a newspaper which reaches a certain circulation becomes a national newspaper. Unfortunately for the residents of the Northeast and even more unfortunately for mainland India, even after 55 years of independence, the Northeast is given second class treatment by these so called national papers. By not reporting adequately on the Northeast, it is the media that has become a  facilitator in kindling a feeling of marginalisation amongst the Northeastern masses. In these papers a minor event in the northern Indian states get reported widely while a major happening in the Northeast part of the country remains under-reported. As a scholar in the Northeast once said when questioned on the current state of affairs. He said he often wondered whether this region,  "was Northeast India or India`s Northeast."

Ironically, this skewed approach is similar to the dominance of the international flow of information from developed western nations to the third world: Within India, the flow is emerges from the affluent and powerful north Indian belt to the ignored Northeast states. This imbalance in information has resulted in an alarming situation as northeasteners tend to seek news from elsewhere. This could be the reason why information about the West takes precedence over information from India.  Only consider how technology also assists in this imbalance. In the border district of Karimganj in south Assam, the reception of Bangladesh national television is far clearer than its Indian counterpart, Doordarshan.

This unevenness of information is liable to give rise to problems that are far more critical  than is generally understood.  Due to a lack of information the natives of the northeast feel cutoff from the mainland and see themselves as misfits in the Indian mainstream. This marginalisation leads to anger and frustration like disrespecting the India national flag, as happened in Nagaland, and an indifference towards national issues.

Although newspapers from Kolkata have tried to show concern about the people of the Northeast through detailed reporting, this is not a solution. This is because a just information flow is the result of a concerted and combined national effort and cannot be practiced by a small section of the media. Newspapers, radio and television have to all work in unison and devote considerable media time in balancing information flow for all regions. A fair two-way communication is the ultimate answer. While news about the north Indian states is given in profusion an equal amount of flow should be activated from the Northeast to north India. A two-way communication promotes harmony and respect for each other`s viewpoints. Much of the present accusations and acrimony between the central government and the Northeast is largely due to a slanted information order. Indeed the crisis in the information flow seems to have enflamed existing issues.

The fault also lies with the so-called experts.  As a nation we seem to be overawed with specialists; every other person is a self-styled guru. Unfortunately, media gurus have forgotten to analyze the information flow issues within India. Perhaps they fear that by voicing concerns on issues like these would reduce the dominance of north India, which in turn would reduce the importance of their own gurudom.

There is also a lack of professional ethics. There seems to be a dependence on armchair intellectualism and armchair reporting. There have been instances when so-called national print media professionals have sat in a secure hotel in Guwahati and reported on far-flung areas of the Northeast without doing any actual field reporting. But returning back to north India they have delivered lectures show-casing their so-called "in-depth" understanding of the area.

Reporting and seeking information about the Northeast is perhaps one of the toughest media assignments. This is an area where information may not be readily accessible. This region needs dedicated, single-minded media practioners and not the kind who confuse Nagaland with Manipur or Tripura with Assam. A recent estimate points out that while on an average culture changes every 100 kilometers in India; it changes every 20 kilometers in the Northeast. A more dynamic and rich culture means more sensitivity, which  means more responsible reporting. Confusing news from Tripura with news that is actually from Assam is like confusing America with the Sahara desert.

It is essential for India to pause and reconsider the whole national information flow issue before raising its voice on the international information flow. A balanced information flow within India could help enormously in eliminating the feeling of seclusion and hatred between north India and the Northeast. Issues like terrorism can also be fruitfully addressed with a balanced flow of information. But for all this, the media needs to introspect and develop a will.

Asim K. Choudhury is the Secretary General of   SHUBH, an NGO, and a communication professional based in Delhi.  He can be contacted at
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