Saturday, October 31, 2009

Battle is for the truth

By Srimoy Kar
We are living in an edgy world, a society under constant threat of violence and terror. A little spark can set us off. On Tuesday last, the so-called Maoist attack on the Bhubaneswar-New Delhi Rajdhani Express nearly pushed us over the edge of paranoia. ‘Maoists hold Rajdhani passengers hostage’, ‘Exchange of fire between CRPF forces and Maoists’, ‘Home Minister assures nation that train will be freed’ — a crisis was created and resolved on television screens as cliffhanger reportage by various channels had audiences and hapless families glued to their seats for five nerve-racking hours. What actually happened in the Rajdhani hostage drama? Who were the perpetrators? And, most important, what was their motive?

Broken down to cold facts, a mob of irate villagers armed with lathis and sharp weapons blocked the tracks, made the drivers and the passengers of the Rajdhani Express disembark and held up the train for five hours. Their action, indeed, was scary. But they did not resort to any violence, did not harm the ‘hostages’ and did not compel authorities to meet their demands. They certainly chose a wrong method to draw attention to the bandh in protest against the arrest of their leader, Chhatradhar Mahato by detaining a high profile train. But the red flags behind the high drama were ingredients enough for our 24-hour news channels to promptly create a trainjack scenario with 400-odd held hostage by Maoists to make an otherwise ‘slow news day a rather exciting one’, as Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN later twittered.

These news channels do thrive on drama. After all, 24X7 news needs meat and blood to sustain the interest, but one-upmanship in breaking news seems to have created a virtual storm in a teacup in this case. What after all is the difference between a peaceful agitator and a Maoist? The use of coercion or violence or fear of violence differentiates them. Sensationalisation of the Rajdhani episode has merely blurred the difference between the two.

The Maoists have categorically denied involvement in the so-called hijack as much as the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA) have objected to being branded as Maoists. Ironically, they are taking up arms only to protest against being clubbed with and treated as Maoists. The Rajdhani episode is definitely a spillover of West Bengal politics. As CPI(M) and anti-CPI(M) forces battle on the ground, Maoists are making hay. After all, terrorists in all forms rely on the oxygen of publicity and the coverage of the trainjack has provided them with enough to glut their appetites.

What irks the responsible media is the sloppy work in presentation and delivery of the Rajdhani episode. A little homework would have elicited the fact that there was no threat of violence, no firing and little evidence of Maoists on the scene. Correspondents who talked to the passengers on mobile phones found them inconvenienced but hardly terror stricken. In fact, after three hours on the track, the perpetrators herded the passengers back into the train well before the CRPF could reach the spot. What was even interesting that after the PCPA activists faded from the scene some channels were busy raising the ante with talk of hot pursuit. No one died, fortunately, and no Maoist was freed in exchange for hostages in the hijack. Yet, an entire nation was kept on tenterhooks and anxious families of passengers thronged railway stations seeking news of their loved ones as the drama played out.

Everyone got into the act. The Union home minister, P Chidambaram and the home secretary, G K Pillai did their solemn best to sound as if a national crisis had been averted by them, while the Union railway minister Mamata Banerjee and the West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee took pot-shots at each other and the PCPA and the Maoist leaders played the press for all they were worth. By the time Chidambaram & Co came live on news channels the drama was nearly over. Instead of presenting a clear picture, they too added to the hype by acting as if the train and the passengers were rescued due to the swift action of the government. Are we to believe that the home minister had no information till then about who were the perpetrators and their intentions? These channels sometimes give undue credit to politicians for what they have not achieved. In this case, with cameras panned all over him, Chidambaram emerged a hero in the hostage drama. On the other hand, the Maoists did not think this one up but the free publicity the media afforded them will certainly inspire them in future.

The Indian media, particularly, the electronic media has already drawn flak for going over the top on many occasions. Sadly, it seems to have learnt nothing from its faux pas during the coverage of Mumbai 26/11 when it beamed live the strategic actions taken by the security forces and in the process playing into the hands of the terrorists. Sensation rather than investigation is the accent of the Indian media today. Our reportage is facile rather than analytical.
We do exposes but few follow-ups. How many serious stories and issues are we tracking and how much fact are we unearthing? Precious little in our quest for photo-ops and quick fixes. A terror attack, a disaster or a catastrophe seems to bring out the worst in us. Sensitivity, compassion, responsibility are given a go-by. To quote Rajdeep Sardesai on twitter, the newsman is like a carnivore going for the big stories, good, bad or ugly. One wonders whether pushing up TRPs is worth the effort.
The scale of the Rajdhani hijack may be smaller but the issues are as significant. A journalist’s mandate is to present facts as they are. When he chooses to overstep his brief, he gets into dangerous territory. Every newsman therefore, has to take a call on what to present and how to present.
A good journalist needs to keep the larger interest of the society in mind. The trainjack episode has once again revived the debate on virtues of old-fashioned journalism versus sensation marketing, on facts versus hype. Ultimately, the battle is for the truth.
About the author:

Srimoy Kar is the resident editor of ‘The New Indian Express’, Orissa and is based in Bhubaneswar.

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