Taking a stand

IN Media Practice | 03/11/2005
Whether on the Delhi blasts, or on the train tragedy or on the Volcker report, most newspapers had a pusillanimous response.



S R Ramanujan


There were three major news breaks in a span of 24 hours during the last weekend. A vicious terror attack in the capital with a view to inflict maximum human toll on the eve of an important festival, a major train tragedy in the South and the Paul Volcker report with international ramifications. These events should have had a bombarding effect on the media.  But alas, it was not to be. It did not accord them the seriousness they deserved. On the contrary, the media was found wanting either in its efforts to pursue the news fall with dogged determination or in its sensitivity.


The run-of-the-mill approach of the media in reporting Delhi blasts has only proved that we have become immune to such gruesome incidents. The low-intensity war that our neighbour has been waging against us for decades must have numbed us. In fact, the Indian media was far more aggressive while reporting London blasts than how it dealt with the 29/10 attacks. Thanks to the tie-up with a number of London broadsheets, our newspapers had a series of analytical articles and extensive coverage of how the British government dealt with jihadi terrorism. But the Delhi blasts did not figure on page one for some newspapers on the very second day. The massacre did not provoke strong editorial comments either. The Hindu, which came out with a full length edit when India voted against Iran, had only a perfunctory edit on this occasion. There was commendation for the Home Minister Shivraj Patil for "breaking with past practice and refusing to point fingers before the evidence is in. However, going by the early indications, policy-makers at various levels will need to think hard about the difficult road ahead….In the past, official Indian responses to such crises have been in the nature of either ill-tempered growling or hear-no-evil silence. Neither will suit the current situation. India must not step back from a peace process that has yielded real gains for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Nor must it gloss over the pain of the victims of the inhuman serial bombings."


Is the "peace process" an end in itself or is it a means to achieve something tangible in our efforts to deal with cross-border terrorism or jihadi extremism?. The entire world knows where the epicentre lies for global terrorism and The Hindu does not want our government to "point fingers before the evidence is in". What a cautious approach! If the "composite dialogue" is not going to guarantee internal security and peace what use is it for us. Is it to satisfy our "liberals" or the candle-holders at Wagah border? The paper also believes that the peace process has yielded real gains. What are those gains? Serial blasts in Delhi, attack on Ayodhya, explosion in Shramajeevi Express, massacre of Hindus in Jammu and infiltration even before the region could recover from the quake? Even as this piece is being keyed in, there are reports of  a car bomb blast killing seven people. If these are the gains, no wonder, stand taken by newspapers like the Hindu emboldens Pakistan to say "without providing evidence if they say a Pakistani group was involved, it can only be a baseless allegation…If the decision of the other side is to talk through the media, we would consider it as unsubstantiated claims".


Contrast this with Pak response to the London blasts when the accusing fingers were pointing towards Pakistan. President Parvez Musharraf was quick on the uptake and appealed to the Pak youth to launch "a jihad against extremism for peace, brotherhood and unity in society". Soon followed a crackdown on the hundreds of madarasas as people were made to believe that  "reformed madarasas" would be the only solution to eliminate terrorism. Islamic seminaries were asked to register with the government. Everyone knew that it was merely for the record. Subsequent events bear this out. The terror factory on Pak soil was active even as thousands of people lay buried in the quake debris, not for providing relief to their own people, but to wreak havoc on this side of the border on innocent people.  Why does Pakistan play this double game when it comes to India? This is because, besides government, our media too displays pusillanimity when it involves issues concerning Pakistan, as any tough stand would be dubbed as "communal" or pandering to communal interests.


For a change, The Times of India took the bull by its horns. In its editorial "Enough is Enough" it said: "Finally - and as much as we may dislike the idea - we need to accept that in times such as these, even a democratic, civil society must accept that there can be limits to freedom. The US has made itself extremely unpopular with its new homeland security laws, but if that’s what takes to save innocent lives, it’s a sacrifice worth making".


Though the 24-hour news channels went live within an hour of the blasts, the competition had its toll on facts. For nearly two hours, the NDTV was insisting that there was a fourth blast in the Gole market while Aaj Tak, in order to prove its rival wrong, was hammering the point that there were only three blasts and there was no blast in Gole market. The television crew of different channels did not have any sense of proportion when they surrounded the Police Commissioner for a byte within an hour of the blasts. What information he could have given when he was yet to come to grips with the situation? Secondly, when every minute was precious at that point of time, the media had no business to stop him from going ahead with his primary task. The worst part was that the Commissioner himself was sounding quite casual and stupid when he tried to answer the questions. Again, one cannot resist comparison with the conduct of London Police and the media while handling similar serial blasts.


For inexplicable reasons, NDTV could not come out with visuals for the first two hours or so and had to be content with repeating Shivraj Patil’s appeal to the public through its anchors, while there was competition between DD News and Aaj Tak as to who would show more blood on the screen.


Nature inflicted another tragedy on the same day when swirling waters of a rivulet washed off the track leading to a gory train accident to the Delta passenger near Hyderabad. This accident laid bare the duplicity of some of the politicians who place party interest over the public interest or governance. When the death toll was believed to be around 200, the Union Railway Minister was content to watch the television to have first hand knowledge of the tragedy.The election campaign of the his party the Rashtriya Janata Dal was more important for him than his responsibility as a Railway minister. This is a classic example of politicians’ priorities - party first, governance next.


But none of the newspapers nor the channels focused on the extreme insensitivity of the Railway minister. What is worse, even after 48 hours, no paper had at least a near-accurate figure over the death toll. It is understandable that in a tragedy like this it is difficult to get the actual toll within 24 hours. But let’s admit that there should be no speculation while dealing with human loss. The figure in different newspapers varied from 70 to 200. On such occasions, the reporter should have personal knowledge by way of counting the bodies inside or outside the compartment. When this is not possible for understandable reasons, one should go by the official figures. Speculation on the death toll is not healthy journalism.


The third event was the publication of Paul Volcker report on the "Oil-for-Food programme which turned out to be a major international scandal. The report was there on the official website of the Independent Inquiry Committee appointed by the United Nations on 28th Oct itself. It was a 623 page report having reference to Natwar Singh and the Congress party in an obscure corner and the credit goes to The Hindu for picking it up and splashing it as the lead story with headline screaming about the involvement of Natwar Singh and the Congress Party. All other newspapers (the ones with circulation in the South) looked foolish when they  carried foreign news agency reports without any mention of the Indian individuals or entities involved in the scam. The New Indian Express had compounded its foolishness by reproducing the relevant portions of Volcker report on the next day calling it as its "investigation".


The Deccan Chronicle could not have been more silly. It published a list of Indian companies which allegedly paid kickbacks to Saddam Hussein without indicating the context. Of course, Natwar Singh and his son Jagat Singh were "nailed" the next day! But the Hindu’s alacrity was short-lived. Once the CPI-M took an equivocal stand, the Editor-in-chief did a volte-face and found "Serious problems with Volcker report". What were the problems? Singh and the Congress party were not asked to confirm or deny the allegations whereas other major global companies were given a chance to respond. This looks as if Volcker had some interest in implicating Singh or the Congress Party. The names of these non-contractual beneficiaries were part of the SOMO records (State Oil Marketing Organisation - a unit of Iraq’s Oil Ministry) and Volcker reproduced it in the table. But politically, this has come at a very inconvenient time, especially after Mitrokhin Archives II, for the Left and the Congress. So, there are "serious problems" with Volcker too!



Contact: s_ramanujan9@yahoo.co.in


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