Sunday, February 21, 2010
The other half
My name is India
F or those of us who are diehard Mumbaikars, February is a month we will not forget for a while. Mumbai was spared a swine flu epidemic, unlike Pune. But this month it was laid low by a virus of acronyms — SS, BT, MNS, SRK, MNIK (for the uninitiated, that is Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Shah Rukh Khan and My Name is Khan). For days on end, Mumbai — and for that matter, the rest of India — heard nothing but whether a Bollywood film, which, by all accounts, is the typical concoction of reality and unreality, would be released or not or whether the will of the city's ‘super censor' would prevail.
At first it appeared that as BT and the SS had decreed that the film was unsuitable for popular viewing for no other reason than that SRK had said something they did not like, it would be pulled off the screens. That has been the norm for decades. But this time, thanks partly to SRK's star status, the people of the city said “Boo”, sort of, to the super censor, the state government pulled out most of its police force and stationed it, rather incongruously, in front of cinema theatres, and the film ran.
BT and SS claimed victory as did the state government and SRK fans. In fact, no one won. Mumbai's so called “spirit” prevailed only momentarily. It was better than in the past when the city's residents stayed at home each time there was the whiff of some trouble from these quarters. Also, rarely have Mumbaikars gone out in the streets to demonstrate for the rights of say, taxi drivers or street vendors, who are the soft targets that the SS and the MNS choose when they seek political mileage and media attention. Yet, it must be said, that even the act of going to see a film, albeit with full police protection, was an act of welcome defiance.
But the high drama, played out minute by minute on all news channels, revealed the emptiness of discussion and debate in this city of commerce. Posturing has replaced politics; violence and confrontation have replaced debate. Mumbaikars have now become accustomed to governments buckling under when these groups raise their voices. They are also used to Bollywood bowing down to the dictates of these political groups without protest. Commerce is more important than democratic sentiments such as freedom of expression.
The MNIK issue is one that every Indian should think about and discuss. What does this say about our democracy? At a recent interaction in Mumbai, Mohammed Hanif, Pakistani journalist and author of the hilarious fictional account of the death of Pakistani dictator Zia Ul-Haq, The Case of Exploding Mangoes, said that India should be glad that it is a democracy and has a judicial system that works, where someone like Ajmal Kasab can be tried. He said this in response to people in the audience who suggested that the only way to deal with terror was to seek summary justice. Hanif suggested that if Indians started talking in these terms, they would not be very different from the Taliban whose ideology they surely oppose. And he was right.
Our own Taliban
Yet, the MNIK brouhaha showed us that our own Taliban are well entrenched. They dictate what people should say, what language they can speak, what films they can see, what art they can appreciate, what books they can read and soon it could be what clothes they can wear. Is this India? Is this a democracy? Why are people sitting back and accepting this state of affairs? Why does a party, that has not managed to win a state election since 1994, dictate the city's cultural life? People of the city came out with banners saying, “Enough is enough” after the terror attack of November 2008. But should this not be the permanent slogan of a city that hurtles from one non-crisis to another?
Of course, while the media's gaze remains fixed on these non-issues, the real problems that affect the lives of the millions who inhabit this city remain unaddressed. For instance, while the majority of people in the city are reeling under water cuts even before the summer has set in, and women in slums live in constant tension as they wait for water, private builders are advertising new luxury apartments with private swimming pools. Mill workers, who worked in the city's iconic textile mills — now mostly defunct — continue to wait for jobs and housing even as the real estate lobby builds deluxe towers on the vacant mill lands. And even as the city's poor, over half its population, struggle to get basic medical care from overcrowded government hospitals and dispensaries, the city is sprouting five-star hospitals offering three-room suites to its patients. The contrasts have failed to rouse our consciences, make us pause and think what direction the city is taking and who determines how it develops.
These issues should matter not just to Mumbai's residents but also to people in the rest of India. They reflect the absence of real engagement by civic society with urban development in many Indian cities that are becoming symbols of confused, iniquitous and environmentally unsustainable development. And above all, they expose the ease with which citizens and governments can get embroiled in non-issues while decisions that can make a difference to people's lives remain permanently on the back burner.
(To read the original, click on the link above)
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
For 15 months, India was spared terror strikes. All that changed on the night of February 13, when a bomb was planted in Pune’s popular German Bakery. In the ensuing blast, nine people were killed, including three foreigners – an Italian, an Iranian and a Nepali. Oddly many newspapers only wrote about two foreigners, failing to recognise that the Nepali too was a foreigner.
In the time gap between the terror strike in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 and February 13, 2010, much has been written about the role of the media and its coverage of the over 60 hours when 10 terrorists held the attention of the entire nation. News channels, in particular, came in for a great deal of criticism for their coverage during and after the terror strike. The jingoistic tone of some channels, notably Times Now, after the terror attack was noted including the way in which its anchors egged studio guests to agree that India should strike back at Pakistan. The media spilled over with pseudo-nationalism and anger against Pakistan. Any attempts to introduce some nuance, to point out the difference between the people of Pakistan and the government, and the difference between Jehadi elements in Pakistan and the government, were shouted down.
Barring a few exceptions, there was a disturbing uniformity in the tone of the media in the days after 26/11. The criticism, however, did not go unheeded. Although there was some defensiveness, several television journalists acknowledged that perhaps they had crossed the line.
It was also evident that the authorities had failed in the way they dealt with the media. In Mumbai, there was no clear centre of authority. Media persons ran from person to person getting quotes, all of them aired in real time. None of this helped create a sense of reassurance or confidence in the public.
After the Pune blast, there was much self-congratulation by the central government and the Maharashtra government on how well they reacted to the tragedy compared to 26/11. Some of this was true. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan was available to the media, as was Union Home Secretary Pillai in Delhi. Home Minister P. Chidambaram visited Pune within less than 24 hours of the incident. The media were briefed by those given the authority to speak.
Yet, even this time, there was chaos in the immediate aftermath. For one, television footage depicted police, journalists and the public stomping all over the devastated site, unmindful of the fact that they might be destroying important forensic evidence. The Pune police was clearly unprepared or not briefed on how to deal with such a situation. In any other country, such areas are immediately cordoned off. It will be recalled, that in Mumbai on November 29, when the last terrorist had been gunned down at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the electronic media went berserk, trampling over broken glass, pushing their way into the hotel and even holding up burnt curtains to show viewers the damage inside. Then too the authorities failed to prevent anyone, particularly the media, from entering the battle-scarred hotel.
But even if in these instances the authorities could be faulted, has the media learned anything since 26/11 about its own responsibility during and after such events?
Perhaps not. After 26/11 there was wholesale speculation about who was responsible for the terror attack even before the government could make a definite statement. This time again, the government has been careful to say that all facts must be checked before anything definitive can be stated. Yet, the media has already made up its mind. Here’s a sample of front-page headlines from four Mumbai-based multi-edition newspapers on February 15:
The Times of India: Blast Part of LeT’s Karachi Project? Hand of Indian Mujahideen seen all over
Hindustan Times: Directed by LeT, executed by IM?
The story goes on to quote a ‘senior security official’: “It looks like a combined effort, commanded by the LeT leadership in Pakistan and executed by IM sleeper cells. US citizen David Headley is the man Lashkar used for the recce.”
DNA: Finger points to LeT-backed IM: Govt fears serial attacks
It would appear that the same ‘senior security official’ briefed all three newspapers. So what should newspapers do with such information? Run it with attribution somewhere in the paper or play it up on the front-page even before the forensic evidence has been collected and analysed?
One would have thought that after 26/11, the media had decided to err on the side of caution. But that was then. Clearly, today is another day and we are back to the principle of competition and the best strategy to capture eyeballs and sell newspapers.
Only Indian Express struck a different note with its headline: Govt. decides, terror won’t hit talks with Pak. View is knee-jerk reactions don’t help, priorities may be changed later
The second issue in the aftermath of terror attacks is sensitivity, especially when speaking to survivors or the families of those who died. Within an hour of the blast, television cameras were hounding the wounded being wheeled into hospitals. We saw undignified shots of people, some with their clothes torn off, struggling to maintain some dignity in the face of a battery of lights and camera. TV crews tracked down the families of those who had died and as usual tried to get statements despite appeals from these families that they be left alone to grieve in private. Finally the Pune police chief had to intervene and issue a directive asking media not to harass the wounded in the hospitals. No lessons learned here either.
(The Hoot, Feb 15, 2010)
(See also more detailed analysis on Infochange: http://infochangeindia.org/Media/Related-Analysis/Confused-coverage-damaged-credibility.html)