Reporting In times of conflict

BY Dasu Krishnamoorty| IN Media Practice | 09/03/2004
To keep the Gujarat pot boiling is to impede the healing process.


Dasu Krishnamoorty


Gujarat was a tragedy that threw up, besides the mobs, two other major players: the government and the media. Government villainy has received worldwide attention and does not need repetition. It is the role of the media that escaped scrutiny all because they monopolize public discourse to the exclusion of dissent.  The fratricidal violence in Gujarat left many dead, orphaned and homeless. The land of Gandhi, a metaphor done to death, evokes a mélange of emotions and responses and rekindles old fires, reopens old wounds. Media credibility emerged from Gujarat reporting as bruised as the psyche of the victims from religious violence. But the reports bruised millions of readers who had no hand in unleashing that savagery or supporting it. News acquired new definitions providing room for a bit of fiction that did irreparable damage to the communal fabric but also arbitrarily created two new social classes deriving their identity from their understanding of the Gujarat and Godhra events. The entry of fiction writers and non-journalists made the discourse complex and intractable.   

After the saga of blood and gore, rape and loot dissipated, reporters returned to their metropolitan habitats for a churning of their conscience at that bar of public opinion, the Press Club of India. Because of the medium he was handling, Rajdeep Sardesai of NDTV was the most visible face of journalism. He said (, 9 Mar. 02), "I personally follow one thing. We are supposed to report facts and tell the people what is happening. In this age, we have to tell the people what is happening all the time." Thank you, Rajdeep.  

Facts have a complex character. They can be neutral, volatile and sometimes helpful. The mention of the word ‘Hindu’ to represent Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin in announcing his death over AIR prevented a possible repetition of the partition frenzy. Assume that a piece of meat was found in a temple. It is a fact but restraint in reporting it would localize any damage the fact could do to communal harmony. The event could fizzle out as just a law and order problem and when temperatures come down might even permit community leaders to sit down and negotiate peace. When facts are likely to convulse communities, reporters need discretion in transmitting them. That is the essence of social responsibility theory that requires the media to share the blame for adverse effects of their reporting.  

Shekhar Gupta does not agree. In an editorial (The Indian Express, 5 March, 02) written shortly after the outbreak of Gujarat violence, he said, "But the media has only reported what has happened in the state. The media holds a mirror to society and if the reflection is an ugly one, it can do little about it. Censorship gives rise to rumors far more dangerous than honest, truthful reporting."  But the benefit of truthful reporting did not cover all facts. Agreeing with Gupta,  Sardesai says, "It is not the media that incites such passion among people. It is the event. Our responsibility is to report actual facts (sic)." True. But events do not travel. Reports do. It is the account or the image of an event that arouses passions among millions of readers and TV watchers. The event is witnessed hardly by a score of persons. What form the image or the report acquires is in the hands of the reporter. Sardesai knows this. 

Yet you cannot exonerate any reporter who failed to report the events in Gujarat. The scale of violence resembled the havoc of natural calamity, news about which cannot be contained in its locale. The violence must be reported and, in fact, has been over-reported. The complaint is that reporters threw caution to the wind in doing their job.  TV cameras catch the action as it takes place and the visual contents need no commentary except to identify places, persons and other elements of the scene in the frames. In the case of print media, facts need someone to tell them. This intervention totally changes the nature of the job of a print reporter. Facts after all are representations of the reality that few people can directly experience.  

In the strictest sense, it is in the reporter’s telling of the story that the element of mediation enters. Since very few of the readers happen to be on the scene, the reporter who has seen the burning Godhra train or the burning Best Bakery tells us the story of the arson. This story telling is not very simple. The reporter is not just a journalist but also a member of the society that in the end bears the cost of his reporting. Here the reporter does not enjoy the same privilege as that of non-media spectator who can react to what he has seen. Yet the reporter has a compulsion to reconstruct the event for the benefit of the reader. This is what is called media construction of reality.  

There is only one reality that our senses alone can experience. What we read in newspapers is a version of that reality. The problem with reality is the multiplicity of versions that it makes available to the journalist. The phenomenon of the same story appearing in different pages, with different heading sizes, with different leads and with different word-count manifests the impossibility of arriving at a consensus on the core of the reality the journalist is reporting. This is no excuse for straying wide off the mark. 

Vinod Mehta’s construction of reality is so different from traditional reporting that it amounts to a new definition of news. He said addressing a Press Council seminar on media that the job of the media was to tell the story from the side of the victims. It is hazardous to agree with this thesis because journalistic ethics compels the reporter to give voice to all victims, of both Godhra and post-Godhra, which was not what Mehta had in mind. At least, Outlook reporters can treat Vinod Mehta’s gloss as permission to be selective in identifying victims. He has only supplied definition to a tradition of reporting in vogue since the demolition of Babri masjid. The salience of coverage depended always on the community the victims belonged to. What appeared in Outlook must be, by Mehta’s own admission, a version that matches his definition of news.  

Vir Sanghvi (The Hindustan Times, 16 April, 02) said: "I do agree with him (the Prime Minister) that the secular establishment was not as vociferous in its condemnation of Godhra as it should have been. .In fact, I said so at the time, arguing that too many secular people were taking the line that because the victims were kar sewaks, they had it coming. Nobody with any intellectual honesty can dispute that the riots were a response to Godhra. I believed that such attitudes ultimately alienated the Hindu middle classes from secularism." This is what many totally apolitical people said but it had no hearing.  

Sevanti Ninan  (The Hindu, 21 March, 02) wrote: "We are guilty of sham liberalism. We focus on the pogroms in Gujarat but do not investigate what happened on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra with equal fervour. But we are also guilty of blatant communalism. Critics of the media have convinced me that a lot of the problems that this country has would disappear if my tribe took a collective jump into the Arabian Sea. Tarun Vijay of Panchajanya put it colourfully when he said we are in the grip of the Marxist-Mullah combine." 

Yes, the reporter has seen someone killing someone else. He could not have seen all the deaths that occurred in Gujarat after the Godhra event. Evidently, the statistics came from the very source that journalists do not trust—government. Statistics also came from international teams visiting after the evidence of violence has disappeared. The media used such statistics as matched the victims’ version (mandatory according to Vinod Mehta). The death toll swung between 2,000 and 10,000 in proportion to the impact of hearsay on the reporters. Since there are some data to start with, it was easy to amplify the data. We can dismiss it as exaggeration. How do we explain the molestation of women in Ahmedabad when they were really in the United States at the time of this fiction?  There are a score of stories about how the Godhra arson started. Who chooses what version depends ultimately not on its factualness but on what the reader wants to believe. 

We remember Gujarat because we cannot forget it.  For, if we forget, what has happened will happen again. But human memory has no logic.  When it remembers 28 February 2002 it may also remember many other dates. 16 August 1946 for instance. That is not going to help. Therefore, let us remember selectively. Let us erect filters as we did when the original series of events happened. We can overlook centuries of irrelevant history and recall 28 February alone and the days that followed, the period that saw the happy co-existence of journalism, hyperbole and fiction. 

A repetition of Gujarat reporting will forever squash all effort to rebuild community relations. The media forgot their duty to the country when they invited and encouraged foreign intervention by deposing before extraterritorial bodies like the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Several media stars appeared before the commission and only John Dayal reluctantly repented his appearance by issuing a lengthy but untenable explanation for his action.  

Such exercises are like the visit of N.Ram, Shekhar Gupta, Dileep Padgaonkar and others to Pakistan to tell everything like it is. They have told a billion people in the country their version of Gujarat. Five hundred or more members of Parliament have heard their story. One has lost count of the number of seminars that debated the Gujarat violence. Above all the Supreme Court is there which can, on its own, order the guilty to be punished. To keep the Gujarat pot boiling is to impede the healing process. 






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