Burn! Burn! While We Watch.

A marauding mob in the heart of Mumbai, and our TV media keeps silent. What explains their sudden restraint?

ByNL Team
Burn! Burn! While We Watch.
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August 11, 2012: A regular Saturday afternoon when an apparently peaceful gathering to protest the recent violence in Assam, organised by the Raza Academy along with some other organisations of the city, turned brutally violent. According to its website, the Raza Academy is an organisation to promote Islamic culture. The original agenda was to raise the issue of the atrocities “committed against Muslims” in Assam and Myanmar.

There were 17 people on the dais. Four of those are suspected to have made inflammatory speeches. But even before the speeches was made, according to NDTV 24X7, there was CCTV footage to show mobs getting on to local trains armed with hockey sticks, kerosene and other riotous material. At 3 pm, Maulana Gulam Abdul Kadri made a provocative speech and a mob of around 3,000 came out of Azad Maidan with banners, flags and bamboo sticks. They were joined by mobs from the Chhatrapati Sivaji Terminus railway station – and the violence began.

The targets of the attack, which had Mumbai burning, were the media that was present and the police. An all-out riot ensued at Azad Maidan and CST in Mumbai. The mob, armed with sticks and kerosene/petrol, torched vehicles including BEST buses, police and media vans. The police lathi-charged the mobs and shots were fired. In the aftermath, two people were killed. Over 50 were injured. Most of whom were police. Journalists were attacked, three OB vans were burnt, the Amar Jawan Jyoti monument was defaced and some rioters molested the women police. Bang in the middle of South Mumbai. A city on constant high alert. But these were riots like nothing seen before.

Now comes the bigger shock. This is South Mumbai. It’s 3 in the afternoon. The media is being openly targeted, as are the police. And TV news stations were nowhere! Most TV channels were subdued in their reporting. In fact, other than for some random tickers, there was no mention of the rioting while it was happening. At the time the riot started, as various tweeters commented, this is what the channels were showing.

Though it’s not fair to expect the media to be on the spot right away, when they did start reporting on the “breaking news”, the main details were missing. So what made the media stay away from the real story of who, what, when, why? Couldn’t have been the “Tyranny of Distance”.

Nobody on TV wanted to talk about the reasons and the people behind the violence. And we may never know who these people were because everyone is shying away from naming them. Why hadn’t we heard from Barkha Dutt or Rajdeep Sardesai? Only on Arnab’s show did anyone come close to naming the Maulana who had been making the inflammatory speech accusing the media of not reporting atrocities committed on Muslims in India.

According to Kanchan Gupta, Editorial Director-Niti Digital: “There are some fundamental problems about the media’s coverage of the issue. The sequence of events was never reflected in the coverage. Who is this mullah who was brought in from UP who made inflammatory speeches? Why is that not being questioned? There are photographic images of all those who were rioting. Why have they still not been arrested?

However, there are some local channels in Maharashtra who initially reported it well before they started getting the calls. A local channel was the first one to show the footage of the Commissioner scolding the DCP for arresting a rioter. The media are not covering this incident, they are covering it up. They feel liable for protecting the minority community, but not all Muslims are rioters. Then why?”

Why wasn’t anyone in the media willing to step on any political toes or name the people who were involved? Were they being “communally” sensitive? Not naming those who were responsible. And definitely not naming any religion. No mention from most channels that it was a Muslim mob that started attacking the media and the police. Had it been the other way round though, wouldn’t the media have gone to town with the fact that a Hindu mob had gone on a rampage?

The “Breaking News” on CNN IBN and NDTV 24X7 said that “Protest against Assam riots turns violent in Mumbai’. That was about it. The discussions weren’t shying away from playing the blame game. The organisers couldn’t control the rioters. The police couldn’t control the rioters. The government couldn’t control the rioters. But the situation was now “normal’.

However, by late evening the TV news channels had got their act together (all the local stations as well as the big guys – NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now) and begun reporting on the state of affairs in Mumbai.

The real debates though were left for Monday and Tuesday. Two days – 48 hours – after the incident

By Sunday, appeals from the Chief Minister, Home Minister as well as Islamic scholars were on-air condemning the violence and requesting “those involved” to be peaceful. The Mumbai Crime Branch took over the investigations and the leading dailies (Mumbai editions) carried the news on the front page. In other cities, news of the riot was on the front page but smaller.

The Hindustan Times: 2 dead as mob erupts at Azad Maidan

The Times of India: Assam riots protestors go on rampage, hold city hostage

The Indian Express: 2 dead, 54 hurt in Mumbai protest over Assam violence

Most TV news stations had their 9 pm prime time question of the day:

What Happened in Bombay? Who is responsible? Was It Pre-meditated?

Arnab Goswami wanted to know, for the people: Was this an intelligence failure?

On NDTV Sonia Singh asked: Why were the police and state government caught off guard?

Times Now Coverage on August 12:

But the questions that remain are for the media.

No matter how long these debates carried on or who was louder (it was Arnab all the way) there still existed an eerie silence, especially on television news channels on the events of that day. One would expect that news channels would be forthright and be as condemning of the riots as they were of any other riots that have taken place elsewhere. So what happened? Did the channels collectively take a decision to tone down the Muslim instigation of the riots in order to prevent a backlash from Hindus? The position which many channels seem to have taken is to have refrained from naming the Muslim community to avoid any kind of a riotous situation. That would make for a compelling argument if it’s a policy followed in every instance of any kind of religious flare-up. But wouldn’t this just strengthen the argument of the Hindu Right that the media only gets after Hindus and not Muslims?

Explaining NDTV India’s lack of coverage on the day of the incident, Abhishek Sharma, Mumbai Bureau Chief – NDTV India said:

“It was a high-pressure situation, cops were beaten up, media was under attack and even women cops were molested. We had to take an editorial call. The pictures coming in were gory, if we had simply shown them the situation could have flared up all over India. Hum sheher ke mahaul ko samajhte hain. There is a deep-seated anger against policing in Mumbai.

We were trying to call senior police officials to get some figures but got none. The state had gone incommunicado. That is why we didn’t show it live or play the whole incident up.

My crew was also beaten up by the police and the protestors but we didn’t take the ‘our crew is in danger’ angle for the story, like some other media channels. It was only after 40 minutes that we started raising questions and our reporters have since been investigating why it happened. We also showed the video of the Commissioner scolding the DCP in public for arresting a rioter.

For around 15 days before the riot, Muslim communities had been calling us on our landline. It has never happened before. They were asking us why we weren’t showing images of the Assam riots. They were calling us because they feel we are secular and would show it. We told them that there was no independent verification of those images. The Muslim community wanted information which the mainstream media wasn’t providing. It was also wrong on the part of the Urdu press to have shown the images without verification”.

The same point of view was reiterated by Ashutosh, Managing Editor – IBN while speaking to Newslaundry on riot coverage said, “There is an unwritten rule in TV channels that because of the sensitivity and nature of the medium, if anything is communal or ethnic in nature it shouldn’t be blown out of proportion – as it is in TV’s nature”.

There is a strong argument that this was a responsible stand to take, but we must ask: Would this same restraint be displayed by news channels if a Hindu mob attacked people in the heart of Mumbai? And is it not a news channel’s mandate to report the news as it happens, when it happens?

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