Media and the Muslim

IN Media Practice | 01/03/2012
The Indian media are often guilty of representing the Muslim extremist view as the general stance of the community, thereby branding it as irrational and rabidly non-secular.
ARUNODAY MAJUMDER says radical responses should be balanced with liberal voices.

The reportage on the Salman Rushdie episode was subject to scrutiny and condemnation in the last few weeks. The division of opinions into a binary, the failure to investigate the nebulous and the consequent stereotype of the Muslim plagued journalism in India.  The Muslim was portrayed as non-secular; the irrational community which has not been able to achieve the separation of the political from the dogmas of the religious. Extreme views emerging from a section of the community were magnified to engineer violence – verbal and written – across television screens and newspapers.

Violence is a spectacle and has the potential to draw crowds. News media resort to violence to increase their ratings and circulation. Violence earns media houses more advertisement revenue which ensures the dream appraisal. To serve the financial purpose of media business and those associated with it, the extreme response from the Muslim fanatics was represented as the general stance of the community and alternative voices from liberal quarters were omitted. It was censorship, it was information blackout.

Introspection followed, and some senior journalists admitted the slip. In a discussion posted on (18.02.2012) Seema Mustafa commented, “… it really reinforced, and I would not say not deliberately, the stereotype of that Muslim demanding the man’s head and by completely ignoring the Muslim and the secular voices and the liberal voices …” Barkha Dutt acknowledged, “… in the initial stages we prototyped and stereotyped the Muslim and that is the sin which the media created (sic).” Moderator Madhu Trehan observed, “… we created a narrative by putting a mike in front of somebody who you know, whose position you know …” These articulations challenge the growing cynicism about contemporary journalism. However, the treatment of a news piece in a broadsheet that boasts itself as ‘the most selling newspaper of the country’ triggers apprehension about the longevity of such introspection.

On Sunday (26.02.2012) the Times of India (TOI) published a three-column news piece with a headline, “Muslim radicals plan ‘siege’ of Parliament” (Page 6, Delhi edition). It informs that Sheikh Anjem Choudhury, leader of ‘Sharia for Hind’, an Islamic group based in London, will organise a rally to the Indian Parliament demanding the imposition of Sharia in the country. The group on its website “… has denounced the Indian Constitution and asked Indian Muslims to protest on March 2 and 3.” The story proceeds to say that in a telephonic interview to TOI, Choudhury emphasised his advocacy of Islamic laws. It then provides details on the steps that the police are taking to stop this provocative march.

Anyone demanding the imposition of religious laws in a secular nation-state is a matter of some concern. The publication of this information is therefore justified. However, here onwards the new item regenerates the bias that was so evident last month. It says that the newspaper interviewed Choudhary and publishes his extreme opinions. It then reports that security agencies have gone into a “tizzy” indicating that they apprehend affirmative action from Muslims. The story makes no effort whatsoever to investigate what Muslims themselves are thinking about the demand which they have been asked to support. Do they support it? Do they oppose it? Do they care? No response was sought to those preliminary questions. Why could reporters not step out of their offices and ask around? Why could a few more telephone calls not be made? Is it just lazy journalism? Or, was the response presumed? Here is what some people told the author when asked about the imposition of Sharia.

Ufaque Paiker, PG Student, TISS, Mumbai: This idea of Sharia is extremely contested. I am sure they are at sixes and nines regarding the technicalities and nuances .They should rather work on something productive and useful.

Shabib Ali, Cleaner, Amar Café, Kolkata: Bakwas hai. In logon ke liye time nahin hai. (This is nonsense. I have no time for such people)

Ayatul Haq, software engineer, Bangalore: Religion is a private matter. It should not be mixed with everyday life in the public. Choudhury is nobody to tell us that we should not participate in elections.

The Muslim community is not silent on the issue. Rather there are vociferous voices that reject the demand raised by Choudhary. Of course, there are voices among Muslims, just like they are there among Hindus, who are likely to support theocratic aspirations. The author has not bothered to analyse them in this instance and makes no apology for that. However, the exclusion of liberal articulations from the news sphere runs the great risk of stereotyping the Muslim in ways mentioned by Mustafa and Dutt.

The Indian Express has also carried the story and its too is a largely one-sided account.  However, the rest of the media have not carried the news at all. Much like what Dutt suggested about the Salman Rushdie episode, they may have agreed to “ignore” the story. Now, there is some merit in the argument that a handful of reactionaries should not receive undue attention since they use it to stir communal sentiments. But then again Trehan had a point when she said about the Salman Rushdie episode, “… there could have been many other ways to handle the story.” So what choices exist between biased reportage and spiking the news altogether? The most important one is to let progressive voices from the Muslim community be heard. To undo the damage inflicted recently on the image of the minorities this could be the first step in the right direction.

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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

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