Supporting the state in Singur?

BY Aloke Thakore| IN Opinion | 29/01/2007
A boycott in Nandigram of newspapers or of journalists belonging to some news organizations suggests a feeling of media disenfranchisement.



Hammer and Tongs




Much before Singur and Nandigram become emblems of the state‚Äôs eminent domain, they are likely to test the strength of the press and its ability to command respect in West Bengal. Whether the state has the legal or moral authority to acquire land, what the terms of compensation need to be, the process, political or administrative that need to be followed, the economics of land transfer, and much more have attracted the legitimate attention of stakeholders in the process; from the compensation calculations of the economists to the felt experience of the population likely to be affected. What is troubling, however, is not necessarily any of these, but the feeling at least among a section in Singur and Nandigram that some sections of the press are part of the fifth column of the state.     


What else would explain copies of Ananda Bazar Patrika being returned unsold from the area around Nandigram, TV channels like Akash, Cchobish Ghonta, and Star Ananda not being entertained in the area, and some journalists who belong to these outlets going under a cloak of anonymity to ensure access to the villagers and the movement. Villagers have become extremely wary of journalists, they turn back some of them, and claim that at least the biggest newspaper group, ABP, has sold itself to the state government. The variations are whether the buying party is the state government, the CPI(M), or the chief minister. 


Albert Camus famously said that the true freedom of the press lies in being neither in the control of the state nor money. State and capital are both coercive when it comes to the pressures they exert on the press. Being in thrall of one or the other is dangerous for the public.  


What we may well have in West Bengal is a rather intriguing situation. There is a coming together of interests in the state. Those with resources to invest, necessarily big capital, and the state now seem to have a shared interest. And that would be just fine since at different times in the history of a state such interests often converge. The problem comes when the press decides to become not merely an amplifier, but also an advocate of such shared interest. Clearly the belief among the people affected by these proposed land  acquisition seems to be that a section of the press has joined hands. 


Whether or not this has indeed happened is not the issue. It is even the perception that is cause for concern. How else does one explain a boycott of newspapers or of journalists belonging to some news organizations? Important to note is that such perceptions are rarely a result of what appears in the opinion sections of the newspaper. It is the reporting that draws close scrutiny and it is the reporting that becomes the yardstick with which to measure the felt bias of the newspaper. What is apparent from the way in which the villagers and protesters, especially in Nandigram, are reacting to the reportage is that there is a feeling of disenfranchisement. A lot of it is political, but there is also media disenfranchisement.


During times when the state, however right it may be, clashes with the rights of the citizens it is the responsibility of the press to ensure that the voice of the people, their rights, their concerns are adequately represented. The state has the wherewithal, primary being its coercive powers, to get its voice heard and to get away with its actions. The private citizen does not. And hence there is the press to help her in the process. If the press either fails or fails to provide an appearance that it is doing the task, then its responsibility as the fourth estate has come a cropper.


In doing so when the press aligns itself with money, it is guilty of dereliction. But when it joins the state, then it has eviscerated itself from the very space that a democracy grants it. Far from comforting the afflicted, a section of the press seems to have taken upon themselves the task of the pamphleteer. While some channels with known political party linkages may be excused, the treatment that ABP is receiving at the hands of the people in the affected villages is reserved for the apostate.






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