Remember, Mohinder is a suspect

BY Dasu Krishnamoorty| IN Media Practice | 29/01/2007
The near-fatal attack on Mohinder Singh has everything to do with what people have read and seen about Nithari barbarity.

Dasu Krishnamoorty

What has happened to Mohinder Singh Pandher in a Ghaziabad court is irredeemable shame on our society, state and visual media. Lawyers and the public took turns in beating the blues out of an accused in the Nithari killings, all while he was in the protective custody of the police. This is a kind of public crime to punish a private crime, and travesty of social awareness. This savagery shows that people react reflexively to what they see and what they have already seen. For weeks TV channels showed repeatedly the scene of the Nithari crime, parents and relatives of the victims crying, public attacking the property of the suspects and the expressionless faces of the accused. Images with enough potential to convert viewers into unthinking tormentors.

Audience ratings, I am sure, are higher for programmes like crime file than discourses on public issues. Alokananda Chakraborty writes in the Financial Express, ?That Nithari remained top priority among TV viewers for most of the past fortnight is also reflected in the sharp increase in the average time viewers spent on TV news. IBN 7 and Sahara Samay National are among the biggest gainers in this period. From 4.5 minutes in the week before Nithari, time spent on IBN 7 zoomed to 8.5 minutes in the week following Nithari.? Chaktaborty quotes the CEO of India TV as honestly admitting that editorial decisions are not always governed by what people should watch but by what they want to watch.

The near-fatal attack on Mohinder Singh has everything to do with what people have read and seen about Nithari barbarity. Hundreds of satellite TV channels today reach nearly every home in India. As a result what is local becomes national.  Jessica Lall and Priyadarshini Mattoo held the viewing public in thrall. The problem begins with the untested credentials of the owners of TV channels in terms of accountability. They are run by anybody who has a few crores of  money ( white or black )that can buy communication technology which is becoming cheaper by the day. They constitute the darker and counterproductive side of communication. Irresponsible TV footage encourages a public tendency to take law into their hands. The assault on Pandher is proof enough. TV reporters and anchors pass their own verdict from where the public take over.

Media watchers naturally wonder if media are operating in a lawless environment and becoming a part of that lawlessness. No. There are laws, plenty of them, and there is also punishment. Increasingly rapists are being sent to gallows. Children of the high and mighty in the country are brought to fast track courts. We have really more laws than we need but when media are the culprits both law agencies and judiciary develop cold feet. Profound issues like freedom of expression and the powerful army of its defenders paralyze law agencies and dispensers of justice. Ghaziabad provided a taste of the consequences of such judicial inertia. Media which hail judicial activism seek exemption from it when it comes to them.

As a result of the thirst of the visual media for ratings, people are enacting the scenes that have greater chances of TV coverage. Just as models are ready to shed the fig leaf for greater TV exposure, there are enough psychos in the society ready to do the act for the benefit of TV cameras. Police go berserk and break the bones of protesters and demonstrators; legislators uproot mikes in the house and hurl them at each other; activists burn and kick effigies of adversaries - aware that TV cameras are running. Satellite TV is erasing the line between protest and hatred. It is changing the form of public protest - people going up a transmission tower or dousing themselves in petrol, or chaining themselves to a lamp post, or marching the streets in their underwear. A normal person becomes abnormal before a camera. As a psychologist has said TV channels are providing mass voyeurism.

The presence of a camera makes a great difference to public behavior. The crudest example is how we become stiff and different when the photographer cries ?ready, one, two, three?? Today┬┐s pictures are no more black and white or mute or static. They move and speak and replicate life and eloquently demonstrate the causal relationship between media content and public reaction.

TV coverage today raises doubts about the right of an accused to dodge the stigma of conviction till his/her last appeal is rejected. I have written earlier about the media encouraging the police to produce suspects before them even before a magistrate takes charge of the case. The following Press Council norm of conduct applies to visual media also: ?While reporting crime involving rape, abduction or kidnap of women/females or sexual assault on children, or raising doubts and questions touching the chastity, personal character and privacy of women, the names, photographs of the victims or other particulars leading to their identity shall not be published.? Those who have seen the suspects on the small screen or in a newspaper can without difficulty identify them in an identification parade. In the Sankararaman murder case, counsel for two of the key accused alleged that the police had identified his clients to the family members of the slain temple official days before they formally identified them in a parade. The accused has a right not to be seen by anyone before an identification exercise.

What is the Supreme Court doing, not using its power to intercede suo motu? In the past,  it had intervened to ensure green belts and open spaces for maintaining ecological balance; forbid stone-crushing near residential areas; earmark a part of the reserved forest for Adivasis to ensure their habitat and means of livelihood; compel the Delhi Municipal Corporation to perform their statutory obligations for protecting the health of the community; direct the industrial units to set up effluent treatment plants; force closure of recalcitrant factories in order to save the community from the hazards of environmental pollution. Now, it must stop trial by media. When TV or film-makers know the consequences of their work, no amount of good intentions can absolve them of the harm they do to social harmony.

Is it possible that this kind of TV overdrive is a ploy to hide media failure to detect what was happening in Noida where most news channels have their head offices? Bloggers report that some correspondents had briefed their editors about missing children in the area but the bosses took no interest. Maybe the victims of Nithari are not the progeny of an Adobe CEO. Media should acknowledge their share of responsibility for the lynching of Mohinder Singh. What happened to him can happen to innocent people among whom it is fair to count Mohinder Singh till he is convicted.

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