Nandini Sundar on – Media’s Need for Whipping Boys


Saturday, June 1, 2013

On the Media‘s Need for Whipping Boys

I am sick to death of TV panel discussions which ask whether human rights activists are soft on the Maoists, romanticise the Maoists and so on. Why doesn’t someone ask if our honourable politicians and security experts are soft on police torture and extra judicial killings?
Television is not interested in a serious discussion – all they want are whipping boys. The sight of Arnab Goswami mocking Prof. Haragopal for giving an “academic analysis” was especially nauseating, compounded by his showing off about “Emily Durkheim” (sic!). Why bother to have a panel at all, if only hysterical calls for the army to be sent in to wipe out the Maoists count as ‘analysis’, and every other viewpoint is seen as biased?
The media’s vocabulary is also very limited. I remember a particular excruciating interview with Binayak Sen where he said he “decried” violence and the anchor repeatedly asked him if he “condemned” it. As far as I know, the two words mean roughly the same thing. Nowadays, even before the media asks me, I start shouting “I condemn, I condemn.” I wake up in my sleep shouting “I condemn.” I am scared to use other words to describe complex emotions, because the media is unable to understand anything else.
The only reason why I agree to participate in any television discussions at all or give interviews to the media, is because I have such limited space to express my views. Most of the time the media is completely unconcerned about what happens in places like Bastar, and when there are large scale deaths of civilians, no-one runs non-stop news or panel discussions. Perforce “human rights activists” have to speak in unfavourable circumstances, because that’s the only time when the media is interested in our views; and that too, not because they want to hear us, but because they need a “big fight” to raise their ratings. That’s what is called ‘balance’. One can almost see visible disappointment on the anchor’s part when panelists who should disagree actually agree on many issues.
Since May 25th I have been inundated with calls from journalists asking for my views. But when I want to write, there is little space. A leading national newspaper refused to publish me on the killing of Mahendra Karma, till they had enough pieces which promoted a paramilitary approach. Even when I do get published it is under strict word constraints. I wrote the first opinion piece ever written in the national media on the Salwa Judum in 2006, but was given 800 words, under the fold. In the first year of Salwa Judum, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of articles on Salwa Judum. I personally met several editors and showed them photographic evidence; and begged TV editors for panel discussions, but no-one was interested. If they had been interested then, perhaps things would not have come to such a pass.
I am unable to write my own book on Salwa Judum because of the court case and all that it takes. I have been wanting to write on it since 2005 because I am, above all, an anthropologist. In any case, my mental space is so clogged by the media noise and the strain of being confined to “opinion pieces” that keep saying the same things because no one is listening, that I can’t write. I am almost glad the IPL has taken over again, and we can all forget about Bastar and the Maoists till the next major attack.
I reproduce below an extract from my article, Emotional Wars, on the public reactions to the death of the 76 CRPF men in April 2010. This was published in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 4, 2012, pp 1-17:
“Government anger was directed not just at the Maoists but at their alleged ‘sympathizers in civil society’, whose verbal and written criticism of government for violations of the Constitution and fundamental rights, was morally equated with the Maoist act of killing in retaliation for those policies.[i] Within minutes then, given the government’s role as the primary definer of news,[ii] whether the alleged sympathizers had adequately condemned and expiated for the attack, became as critical to the framing of the news as the attack itself.
The largely one-sided government and media outrage – the targeted killings or rapes of ordinary adivasis rarely, if ever, invite direct calls upon the Home Minister to condemn each such incident – easily summon to mind Herman and Chomsky’s distinction between “worthy and unworthy victims” as part of what they call the media ‘propaganda model’.[iii] While news coverage of the worthy is replete with detail, evokes indignation and shock, and invites a follow-up; unworthy victims get limited news space, are referred to in generic terms, and there is little attempt to fix responsibility or trace culpability to the top echelons of the establishment.[iv]…..
…………..In times of civil war, the emotions performed by the state range from the inculcation of fear to a calculated display of indifference to the exhibition of injured feelings, as if it was citizens and not the state who were violating the social contract, and that the social contract consisted of the state’s right to impunity.

1. For example, after a Maoist attack in which 4 men of the Central Industrial Security Force were killed, the Home Ministry put out a statement asking “What is the message that the CPI (Maoist) intends to convey? These are questions that we would like to put not only to the CPI (Maoist) but also to those who speak on their behalf and chastise the government…We think that it is time for all right-thinking citizens who believe in democracy and development to condemn the acts of violence perpetrated by the CPI (Maoist).” Chidambaram slams Maoist sympathizers, Times Now, October 26, 2009, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-10-26/india/28067149_1_maoist-sympathisers-cisf-jawans-chhattisgarh, accessed 12 November 2011
[ii] Hall, S. et al., Policing the Crises: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, London: Macmillan Education Ltd, 1978; Gans, HJ. Deciding What’s News, Northwestern University Press, 2004 (1979).
[iii] Herman, E. S. and Chomsky, N. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, Pantheon Books, 2002, pp 37-86)
[iv] An enquiry was immediately ordered into the Tadmetla attack headed by a former Director General of the Border Security Force, EN Rammohan. He found several lapses in the leadership and functioning of the CRPF, including their failure to adhere to standard operating procedures. However, the commander responsible for this debacle, DIG Nalin Prabhat, while initially transferred, was given a gallantry medal a year later in 2011. Further, the government itself takes no responsibility for orchestrating this mindless war on its own people.

 

Sri Lanka Lagging Behind In Social Media


It is estimated that over 425 million people use social media networks, including Facebook and Twitter. The use of social media has been described by many activists as the ‘final medium for free speech’. Catherine Jackson, Reporters without Borders, called on media groups to embrace social media networks as they search for new mediums of communications.
With media freedom reducing all over the world, the question that exists is how far do media institutes use this new form of communication?
Catherine Jackson, speaking to The Sunday Leader, explained that with the growing censorship over media the world over, a new uncontrolled medium must be found. She stated that governments do not have control over social media networks, which allows the opportunity for uncensored news to continue to filter its way to the people. ‘With over 400 million people using social network sites, the reach for media institutes will be unmatched,’ she added.
However, last week Twitter announced that they would be selectively blocking content on a country by country basis. According to their official blog, a country’s government may make a request that tweets (messages by Twitter users) referring to a certain topic be banned in their respective countries. For example, in Germany Twitter may block tweets with any pro-Nazi sentiment. This is because it is illegal to promote the Nazi party or its ideology in Germany. Despite the tweet being blocked in Germany it will still be visible to users elsewhere in the world.
This announcement was met with a mixed reaction by global media advocates, with many claiming that the organisation is simply encroaching on people’s media freedom. Others have argued that this move serves simply to strengthen the message which is being blocked. Twitter defended the decision claiming that it was carried out in the interest of protecting freedom of speech, but also to adhere to the laws of countries.
Regardless of the reasons behind the new action taken by Twitter, it is clear that governments’ influence on social media is creeping in.
In Sri Lanka the media freedom was dealt a blow last December with the announcement that all media websites must be registered with the Ministry of Mass Media. This saw several news websites blocked including http://www.srilankaguardian.com, and http://www.srilankamirror.com. Despite these websites being unblocked two weeks later, there are still conditions existing around their operation.
With media control increasing in Sri Lanka, people are now looking to alternate forms of communication. The use of the internet offers this alternative in the form of social media. However, Sri Lanka has not grabbed on to the power of these online media networks.
Major newspapers use these networks as an extension of their websites, the information received on networks such as Twitter and Facebook is nothing new. Twitter accounts for these newspapers are used to highlight articles that are made available on the website.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, member of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, explained that Sri Lanka is still ‘largely unaware of the potential of social media online to galvanise support’. He added that activism in the country is still limited to physical aspects such as staging protests, however online activism is still to gather momentum. He called on groups to learn how to effectively use such platforms which are resilient to network blocks. ‘Media organisations can more effectively reach a growing number of users within Sri Lanka on these platforms, can virally spread their advocacy, and reach those outside the country,’ Hattotuwa added. Drawing attention to the Arab Spring, Hattotuwa expressed his belief that social media is fundamental to free speech today.
In Egypt, the uprisings and subsequent occupation of Tahrir Square by over a 100,000 people was made possible due to the use of social media.
The organisation by opposition groups, dissemination of their messages and the continuous news streaming from different areas in the country was done through social networks such as Twitter.
In Syria, the crackdown on protestors has been coupled with a ban on foreign journalists entering the country. The only news organisations that continue to broadcast are those that are run by the oppressive regime. However, the world has been made aware of what is going on within the borders of the country due to use of the internet and social media.
Protestors have taken to tweeting regular updates of the situation, while YouTube is continuously being updated with amateur videos of Syrian troops attacking protestors.
Of course this has led to many of the purists claiming that such media reports are unverified and cannot be considered accurate. John Nicholas, lecturer on media and journalism at the University of Newcastle in Australia, wrote in an open letter to the world media that social networks are ‘an unverified entity which will only serve to spread false rumours. As journalists we are trained to find the facts and report them truthfully, social media is a tool that holds potential but can go no further than serving as a link between the media and the people’.
Ironically, it is the governments of the world which have seen the potential of social networks faster than media institutes. In Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has employed members of their police force to actively monitor social media networks. The job goes further than just reporting on what is being said, but they are also expected to help promote pro-government propaganda.
Similarly in China, Twitter has been blocked by the authorities and replaced with a state operated social network known as ‘RenRen’. This platform was introduced by the Chinese government in an attempt to quell free media while still allowing their citizens an opportunity to enjoy the ‘social aspect of social media’.
In the world of growing internet, it will seem that for free media to continue its growth the embrace of social media seems to be necessary.
By Dinouk Colombage

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