Reporting communal clashes

BY s r ramanujan| IN Media Practice | 17/10/2008
There should not be separate standards for reporting communal clashes – one for Hindu-Muslim strife and the other for Hindu-Christian violence.
Is the media consistent in its tradition of not identifying the community, asks S R RAMANUJAN. Pix: Christians protesting in Orissa.

Five incidents of communal clashes were reported in different states around the Durga Puja season taking a toll of nearly 30 lives. All in a span of seven days. Except in Dhule in Maharashtra where 10 were reported killed, clashes in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh had a similar pattern and provocation. In Bhainsa and Karimnagar (AP), Malkangiri (Orissa), and Burhanpur (MP), the Durga procession was the main provocation and the processions were attacked invariably as it crossed a mosque.


According to the Home Minister of AP, the Durga procession in Bhainsa was stopped when it neared the place of worship and when prayers were over (obviously in the Mosque), the procession was stoned.  Needless to say, there was retaliation from the processionists and then it was free-for-all. This is not something new and the provocation for violence between the two communities has a familiar pattern right from 19th century. 


Bhainsa is a small town in Adilabad district bordering Maharashtra and has 40% Muslim population. According to an eye witness quoted by the Hindu, one Dongre Kailash from Bhainsa said "This is the first time that we have seen even 20year olds carry firearms. This phenomenon only indicates the increased threat to our lives". Another victim Ramdas whose house was attacked said: "A few youth first tried to break open the door with iron rods. When their efforts failed, one youngster fired two shots from a pistol". It is not difficult to hazard a guess about the community to which the youth belonged though the professional ethics demanded that the communities should not be named, whereas the community of the dead was identified.  Well, the state home minister had to console himself that they did not die in police firing as though death due to stabbing was beyond his jurisdiction!


Similar was the style when the media reported the trouble in Karimnagar. "Mob goes berserk, attacks passersby during a rally in Karimnagar" was the headline in the Hindu.  Why did the mobs take out a rally? "It was in protest against the dispute that arose during the Durga idol immersion procession...


Violence broke out between two groups during the immersion procession. Violating section 144, the mob went berserk at the Indira Chowk, in the heart of the city and attacked all the passersby including the women. The "mob" also entered a cinema hall and chased away  viewers and threatening media cameramen of dire consequences." The very fact that the BJP demanded the government to arrest the culprits involved in group clashes and called for a bandh gives a clue to the identity of the "mob". Again, the tradition of not identifying the community was followed and rightly so. But, is the media consistent in following this tradition? That¿s the big question.


Now, let¿s take a look at the reporting of similar events in MP and Orissa. The Hindu had a filler on page one while reporting the violence in Malkangiri (Orissa) where 15 were injured in a clash. "Atleast 15 people were injured in a clash between two groups following an attack on a Dura Puja pandal at a small town in this district. The authorities have clamped prohibitory orders on Friday". Whether it is a puja pandal or prayer hall, treatment should be the same. But that was not to be. However, a discerning reader cannot miss the contrast when the same daily gave a four-column photograph with graphic details when "unidentified" people threw a stone at the glass casing of infant Jesus in a church in Chennai. May be, the proximity mattered while deciding the priority.


Similarly, Times of India (Hyderabad edition) dismissed the communal clash in Madhya Pradesh in which three were killed initially as a filler. "Three people were killed and atleast 20 injured in riots at Burhanpur town in Madhya Pradesh...Rioters burned more than 60 shops in Gandhi Chowk area while houses and shops were ransacked in other parts of the town."   When the riot toll went up to 8, there was a detailed story three days later. According to the Times, "the trouble started at 9.30 PM on Thursday when a religious procession was passing through a Muslim-dominated area of the town. Police said some "miscreants" pelted stones on the procession, triggering clashes between two communities. On Friday, fresh riots started when Muslims gathered at Burhanpur¿s Jama Masjid for prayers. Leader of Opposition of Burhanpur Municipal Corporation Nafeez Mansaab said fresh clashes started after some unidentified men threw red ¿gulal¿ on Muslims offering prayers". Who were the "miscreants" who pelted stones on Thursday provoking ¿gulal¿ spray on Friday? Identifying the "miscreants" might trigger more trouble. Agreed. Did the media use the same standards or restraint elsewhere?


In the early hours of Oct 12, there was another incident 12 KM from Bhainsa in AP, where a family of six were burnt alive or according to some reports they were murdered and their bodies were burnt. It was suspected that this had something to do with the Bhainsa violence. The Hindu in its edition dated Oct 13, showed utmost restraint in reporting the incident which is of course laudable while Times did not show the same restraint and was quite explicit in identifying the communities. But the same Times reported with due restraint a tense situation that prevailed on Tuesday in Karimnagar "following the burning of a flag at a place of worship."


Sadly, this was not the case when the Hindu  sent a special reporter to investigate the tragic events in Kandhamal district, a month after the sectarian clashes. Though the reporter deserves credit for the story which decisively proved the rape of a nun and the inaction of the state machinery until the media expose, there was no objective chronicling of the events after August 25. The reports appeared to be more of a command performance and selective than professional and objective reporting. I had to come to this conclusion after a report appeared in the Times quoting the same Bishop on whom the Hindu reporter relied for the inputs.


This is what the Times had to say: "Amid rape, murder and arson in Orissa, there are also several heartwarming instances of courage displayed by ordinary people in protecting strangers irrespective of their faith. Orissa Archbishop Raphel Cheenath recounts a couple of such stories. In Baliguda, two priests, chased by a blood-thirsty crowd, found a house for shelter. But inside they saw photographs of gods and goddesses and wondered if this was the right house to take shelter. But as they were coming out, an aging woman, the only person in the house, stopped them "Don¿t go out, Nobody will come here. I will protect you. Then the woman locked the door from outside. When the crowd left, she opened the door again. She served them a meal before letting them go. The Archbishop adds, "there are hundreds of cases like this which can be collected and told". 


It is not clear whether the Archbishop did not reveal these facts to the Hindu reporter or the reporter wanted to be selective to suit the secular crusade of the paper. The Archbishop should, in fact, have said in more explicit terms that while a section of misguided Hindu zealots (as we use the same expression for the Muslim youth and it is only after the NIC meet, the state chief minister named Bajrang Dal) carried out acts of destruction of prayer halls, burning of houses, there were hundreds from the majority community who came to the rescue of harassed Christians in Kandhamal. This would have helped soothen the frayed tempers in both the communities.


Coming back to the Durga procession clashes, there is absolutely nothing wrong in the restraint shown by the media while reporting such communal or sectarian clashes. But the problem was there was no consistency or uniformity in the restraint that was followed. Restraint was quite erratic and selective.


 As a matter of fact, in the old school of journalism there were dos and don¿ts for reporting clashes involving religious communities. In the newspaper I served, we  published unwittingly a photograph of a group of injured women in a communal clash in the Old City being brought to hospital and some of them had ¿bhindis¿ in their forehead. There was severe criticism for indirectly identifying the community leading to possible retaliation.  In these days of 24-hour news business, and defining moments, visuals - whether they are gory or provocative – are staple food of the channels and by extension the newspapers.


My only plea is that there should not be two sets of standards for the media while reporting communal clashes – one for Hindu-Muslim strife and the other for Hindu-Christian violence. Further, the media should be governed by a carefully evolved code of conduct for reporting communal violence, irrespective of the communities involved. This is the minimum social responsibility that the society expects from the media.


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