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Media communalism

Media communalism

Author: S R Ramanujan
Publication: The Hoot
Date: March 20, 2009
URL: http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=3732&mod=1&pg=1&sectionId=19&valid=true

If the media really believed that Varun Gandhi's speech would cause unrest among a section of the people, did the repeat telecasts of the speech make any sense?

In one of his responses to media "interrogation", Jawaharlal Nehru's great grandson and a political debutant Varun Gandhi said that he was being targeted simply because he was a "Gandhi". What he probably meant was that because he was an "estranged Gandhi", he was on the firing line of his rivals (no prizes for guessing who they are) and specially the English media. The speech that was attributed to him, doctored or otherwise, was certainly not in good taste. His defence that the fact that his speech did not incite any single individual for nearly 15 days was by itself a pointer that there was no malice on his part, may not wash either.

However, the role of media is certainly open to question. While reporting that it was a "hate speech" "blatantly communal" etc, did the media behave responsibly by telecasting the tape umpteen times a day for the last few days? If the media really believed that the speech was intended to or likely to cause unrest among a section of the people, do the repeat telecasts of the speech make any sense, or does it show the media as a responsible institution?

When the Election Commission sincerely believes that it was indeed a "hate speech" and might cause communal disturbances, it should have intervened and restrained the media from repeat telecast. They did their job by reporting the event with the CD supplied to all channels by a mysterious source. Follow up stories need not always be with the same offensive CD. Finding an excuse to repeat the telecast of the CD only exposes the channels' real intentions. It also helps those who charge the mainline channels of being anti-majority.

Though conventional ethics demands that the source need not be disclosed, on instances like this, where the CD is not the result of the efforts put in by the reporting staff, revealing the source might help viewers make up their mind as to the intentions of those behind the CD that is dished out to them at least a dozen times a day, irrespective of the genuineness of the CD. Particularly so when Varun is harbouring a conspiracy theory. This is analogous to the tendency of both print and electronic media to decry obscenity while showing obscene pictures on the pretext of dealing with the subject, in the process titillating readers and viewers.

Varun Gandhi made certain observations relating to the context in which he made objectionable statements. He was citing atrocities, real or imaginary, committed on the majority community in the border constituency of Pilibhit. Should not the media make its own independent investigation into the charges made by the fresher in politics rather than repeating the telecast of the same CD? Is the media afraid that it will not help its ultra secular image?

When National Conference leader Omar Abdullah made a speech during the Trust Vote in the Lok Sabha stating that he was proud to be a Muslim and an Indian, the fell all over his speech, declaring it the best speech in recent times in Parliament. He was equivocal on the Amarnath issue during the speech and his role during the Amarnath agitation is no secret to the citizens of this country. But the media did not think he was communal or practising divisive politics when he spoke for Muslims.

Take the case of the Majlis-e-Ittehaadul Muslimeen (MIM). Everyone knows how rabidly communal the party is. The MIM was an ally of the UPA in the last elections. Now, the party wants to have the veto power in the appointment of Police Commissioners or Director General of Police in Andhra Pradesh. MIM President Asaduddin Owaisi petitioned the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of AP against the inclusion of a particular officer in the panel for the top Police post stating that his "communal and high-handed" behaviour had alienated him from "the Muslims of Andhra Pradesh". So, the basic pre-condition for appointment to the top police post, it seems, is that he/she should enjoy the confidence of the minority community. If the majority community makes a similar demand, we know what the reaction of the media will be. The community or its leaders will attract instant criticism that they are divisive and communal. But the national media is silent over the MIM's demand.

Abdul Nassar Madhani's terror links and the Kerala CPI-M's proximity to him is no news for the national media. Interestingly, while the chief minister betrays his helplessness on the issue stating that it takes time for him to get information from his intra-party rival and the state home minister, the latter feels there is no need for an enquiry into Madanis' terror links. The party wants Madani's PDP support to win elections. Never mind the fundamentalist nature of the PDP's policies and programmes. For the uninitiated, Madani was the one who master-minded the Coimbatore blast in the nineties to assassinate L K Advani who, however, had a narrow escape.

The latest is Imran Kidwai's Chandigarh speech. Though he made the "hate speech" on March 15 closer to Delhi and not in far off Pilibhit, and the BJP petitioned the EC on March 19 with the CD which was circulated to the media by the party, the national media do not seem to have picked up the story. Imran Kidwai is a senior Congress leader and he said "I regret not being a mufti. Had I been one, I would have issued just one fatwa that going with the BJP amounts to committing kufr". AICC in-charge for Punjab Moshina Kidwai and party candidate and Union Minister Pawan Bansal were reportedly present at the public meeting in which Imran is alleged to have made this statement. This seems to be a perfectly secular sermon for our media. Hence, the deafening silence?

In contrast, on the same day, Mallika Sarabhai's decision to take on Advani in Gandhinagar was a great developing story for most of the national channels. There was a "live" debate with her in at least two English channels. While the anchors conceded that there was "negligible" chance of her winning, and that her real intention may be to hog publicity, the debate, nevertheless, continued for quite some time. Of course, in all fairness to her, she maintained that her foray into electoral politics was not to score a point or two on secularism.

An interesting side-show to this secular-communal diatribe is the petition filed by the "Vaishnavites" of Andhra Pradesh before the CEO, Hyderabad, against the CPI-M state secretary B V Raghvulu who asked the state finance minister K Rosaiah to wear "namam" and roam the streets of Andhra Pradesh as a mendicant. Vaishnavites felt that their sentiments were hurt by Raghavulu's statement as he ridiculed their sacred "namam". For the uninitiated, what the Chief Election Commissioner Gopalaswamy wears on his forehead is "namam". Even this story had no takers in the national media.

The lesson, therefore, is that communalism, whether prefixed with the labels like "majority" or " minority", is not confined to men occupying political space in this country. The media is also not untainted by it.

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