When media is nuked

IN Media Practice | 05/12/2011
Is the media taking sides when reporting on nuclear debates? In some cases, the disproportionate reportage is as explosive as the nuclear controversies themselves,

Reprinted from www.kafila.org

After the armed forces, the nuclear establishment is another holy cow in the post-independence India. Our media not only outsources all final judgements on nuclear issues to the nucleocrats, but has also happily joined them in slanders against the grassroots anti-nuclear movements.

We have seen the media discourse on nuclear weapons being shadowed almost entirely by national security and nuclear deterrence arguments. On the recent upsurge of mass protests against nuclear energy projects across the country, media is playing the official tune where people challenging these projects are reduced to illiterate crowd, foreign-funded groups, religious identities and even anti-nationals. On 24th this month, the Tamil newspaper Dinamalar published a story titled Truth and hype behind the Koodankulam row. This report is nothing but an utterly malicious piece of journalistic writing with ugly slanders against the leading activists of the ongoing anti-nuclear movement in Koodankulam – S P Udayakumar, M Pushparayan and M P Jesuraj.

Not only did the report call them US-funded spoilers who did not want Tamil Nadu to develop, it also questioned the motives of M. Jesuraj who coincidentally is a Christian priest. The thousands of agitating fisherfolk in Koodankulam, whose livelihood and safety is at stake, are Chiristians by co-incidence. When pushed to the wall, their social and religious organisations would become part of this agitation by default. But that becomes a stick for the government and media to whip. Going even a step further, Dinamalar published the personal details, phone numbers and email addresses of the three activists. After the publication of the story, these activists and their families have started receiving obscene and threatening calls. They have complained to the Press Council of India and Dinamalar’s Editor pointing the “criminal intent of inciting public anger and outrage” and “provoking the public to attack.”

Questioning ‘development’ is anti-national, and even more so if minorities questions

The government has recently slapped sedition charges against people in Koodankulam. Criminal charges have been slapped against 3,015 people, including 121 (waging war against country) and 124-A (sedition). These charges came in the immediate context of the protests on 21st November (World Fisheries Day), when around thousand fisher-folk, with women and children, took out a demonstration on around 400 boats in the mid sea, in front of the reactor site, with black flags, banners and slogans. (Pics can be seen here)

Even as the central government has posed to conduct consultation with local people to “allay their fears”, the it is using every slander and trick to weaken the protesters’ position and credibility. In the very press meet where the PMO state minister V Narayanswamy promised that the 50 questions raised by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) are genuine and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) will answer them very soon, he questioned the source of funding of the movement, wondering how can it sustain for such a long time. He later called the protests ‘motivated.’ Around the same time, “senior intelligence officials” were quoted by media to be doing religious profiling of the movement. The Tamil Nadu police registered cases against Christian priests as “using of a place of worship to air anti-governmental campaign is a crime.” The Hindu fundamentalist organisations soon joined the chorus , asking for arrest of Christian “anti-nationals”.  In this backdrop, the story in Dinamalar is hardly an aberration.

While the protestors in Koodankulam become Christians, anti-Russia and US-funded, those in Jaitapur are anti-France and all just Shiv Sena mercenaries of Madban or Muslim fishermen of the Nate village, in Mithi Virdi (Gujarat) they are anti-US and perhaps funded by Russia! The government that has presided over the worst cash-for-votes scam to get the nuclear deal through, hired and later awarded crony NRI lobbyists for the US Congress and promised reactor purchases without comprehensive evaluation is using every method to malign the movements.

Anil Chaudhary of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) shares a similar story of releasing some statements recently with signatures of prominent citizens and intellectuals – on Koodankulam and the Nuclear Liability Rules – to the media, only to find later that the other side of the story doesn’t find a place.

Fomenting religious divides is just not working

Fishing communities are in particularly threatened by the nuclear power project as the residual hot water, left after cooling of the reactors, would be sent back to the sea raising its temperature by at least 5 degrees. This would lead to drastic fall in the fish-catch, as it has happened world over in the vicinity of nuclear power plants. Besides the hot water and brine coming out from desalination plant that stand to threaten the marine life, the fishing will also be ruined by the presence of permanent security apparatus that has become a necessity to guard nuclear facilities and whose expenses are not counted in the production cost of nuclear power. The government, the nuclear establishment and the media have tried to divide Koodankulam protests along religious lines as fishermen are Christians and the farmers in the area are mostly Hindus. But it could not succeed beyond the media hype, because even the farmers have come to oppose the project strongly, particularly after Fukushima accident which is still ongoing and will have dangerous consequences for next few decades. Chettikulam, the only village in the immediate periphery of the reactor site that was supporting the project over last so many years, has come out recently against the project. The villagers of Chettikulam organised their first anti-nuclear meeting – attended by at least 6-7 thousand people, mostly women – on 12th November, ironically in the same week when the national media had declared that the nuclear patriarch Dr. Kalam has quelled all the unfounded fears!

Mystique of nuclear technology and arrogance of growth

Our media has been overly generous to Dr. Kalam, with The Hindu offering him almost its 2 full pages to write paeans to nuclear energy when it is under a worldwide criticism and decline and declaring Koodankulam plant to be 100% safe. While several prominent independent scientists have questioned the arguments and facts with which Dr. Kalam was briefed by the DAE in its PR campaign, his article and his articulations in the Chennai press conference were based on an ‘India 2020’ dream based on unhindered growth, high degree consumption and urbanisation – which is both unsustainable and simple impossible. No matter howsoever our middle classes love the American dream, for it to materialize in a country of India’s size, we would need to colonize another planet. Yes, our elite is trying the inward-looking alternative of working on a rather smaller India by condemning rest of the population to starvation deaths, displacement and brutal “hunts”, but even this doesn’t seem to be working as seamlessly, despite full support by large sections of the media.

Nuclear technology is yet another magic wand supposed to catapult us into that Promised Land. The mythology goes something like this: India needs development, development means growth, growth needs energy, energy means electricity, and then nuclear is the cheapest, safest, most reliable/sustainable form of energy to produce electricity. There are misconceptions, lies and vested interests facing us at each of these layers is something that we are made to forget in the arrogant pursuit of this dangerously simplified formula. And not only the mainstream reporters who have a penchant for reproducing official press releases verbatim as breaking news, our leading Editors also strongly hold the inherent risks associated with nuclear technology as worth taking for. On 31st October, The Indian Express editorial asked: “How long will it take the government to muster its political will (to credibly engage with legitimate fears and wilful misrepresentation) while India’s nuclear future is forced to recede?”

In all this debate on Koodankulam and nuclear power, the urgency to see India developed has overshadowed several genuine questions regarding safety as well as the project’s affects on people’s livelihoods and a fragile ecology. The protesters have asked for the documents related to safety preparations, site selection, environmental impacts etc which the govt is reluctant to share. When the government has shamelessly reduced the nuclear suppliers’ ‘product liability period’ to mere 5 years when a nuclear power plants operates for 40-60 years and dangerous radioactivity has a life of hundreds of years, why are the government ‘experts’ and their complying media outlets bent on telling common people to risk their lives.

Reducing the question of nuclear safety into design safety may prove to be a dangerous folly. Nuclear radiation has its impacts for generations and leads to genetic mutations that can endanger us as a species. Nuclear reactors can run into problems not only because of inherent design problems that are obviously there, but also because of a range of factors that are beyond us: our knowledge of seismology and climatology is still evolving; we cannot guarantee that political and social circumstances around these reactors will remain same for coming thousands of years. The recent fierce protests against a nuclear waste dump in Germany’s Gorleben is  instructive: the site was selected on the border of East Germany by the then West Germany as rulers thought it will be secured by army always and will be safe as it is surrounded by rivers on three sides. Now, after the German wall is no more, Gorleben is a bustling town right on the middle of several important transport routes. So, Dr. Kalam’s, Dalai Lama’s, our mainstream media’s and the great middle classes’ analogy of risks everywhere: in driving a car, attending a seminar, even having food, does not apply to nuclear when we take into account its long-term and far more dangerous consequences.

Veteran peace activist and India’s former Chief of Naval Staff recently argued: war is too serious a matter to be left to generals. By the same token, it is time to ask if nuclear decisions are far too serious to be left to nuclear scientists, the nuclear industry and the nuclear techno- politicians!

Shouldn’t we also add the media in this list where independent inquiry gives way to the official experts’ empty assurances and journalists are experts in selling the great Indian growth dream? 

Subscribe To The Newsletter
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.                 

View More