The ‘Secular’ Compulsions Of Reporting Communal Clashes

The ‘Secular’ Compulsions Of Reporting Communal Clashes

Riots, irrespective of where the needle of suspicion points, have to be covered with greater sensitivity.

By Manisha Pande

Published on :

For two days straight, news about the communal clashes in Saharanpur, in western Uttar Pradesh, has made it to the front pages of all national dailies and been reported by 24/7 TV news channels.

While it has been standard practice for some time – at least among “old-school” journalists and editors – to not reveal the identity (caste or religious) of communities involved in rioting, most papers gave out such details in this case. That would be okay, if they did it in a uniform manner and followed a principle of either identifying those involved in rioting or not naming anyone at all. But this wasn’t the case.

The Indian Express, for example, carried a story today in which the first two paragraphs merely mentioned the rioting groups as “two communities”, while the rest of the story went on to provide details that gave away the religious identities of the rioting mobs that first clashed on July 27, Saturday.

The Hindustan Times front-page story on Sunday carried the headline “UP burns again, Sikh-Muslims clashes kill 3 in Saharanpur”. The story went on to give out the identity of two of the three riot victims who lost their lives in the clashes.

The Hindu in today’s edition clearly gave out the religious identity of those who were allegedly involved in rioting by naming them. In yesterday’s edition, though, its front-page story just referred to rioters as “two communities”.

While you could blame the media for not being consistent in the way it reported on Saharanpur, you can certainly not blame it for being silent on the issue. In this respect then, Headlines Today Editor (Strategic Affairs) Gaurav Sawant’s “secular silence” comment came across as odd, if not misinformed, given the ample reportage the incident has received. But clearly Sawant was not talking about reportage, or the lack of it. What he was really looking for is outrage. This is what he tweeted last evening.

He followed that up with three other tweets that were classic examples of straw man arguments – pinning the blame on that slippery construct called the “seculars”. Moreover, his tweets seemed like an attempt to drum up the moral fury that to his mind “seculars” so failed to display in this case. He later deleted these but his fans and detractors had already saved screenshots of his tweets for posterity:

In one of his tweets, he questions that if the media revealed the religious identity of the IT professional who was murdered in Pune, why it is that the identities of the riot victims were being treated as state secret. Clearly, Sawant had not read the HT report. It is important to note that there is a  difference between reporting on a murder and a riot. There are certain accepted principles for reporting on riots, the prime one being not reporting in a way that could incite hostility and lead to further violence.

His other tweet about “roze pe riots” not making headlines as opposed to “roze pe roti” — apart from displaying questionable taste in headlines — also seemed to draw a parallel between two events that had nothing in common. The incident in the Maharashtra Sadan made news because it involved an elected Member of Parliament. The Saharanpur riot, as has been explained above, calls for a different kind of reporting. Besides, to further link these stories to Ramzan which is ongoing, betrays a sententiousness not expected of a senior journalist.

Naturally, Sawant’s comments were derided by many on Twitter:

Sawant was not available for comment when we called him, but he did delete his tweets. Was it because of the reactions he got or was he told to do so? We don’t know.

Having said that, it must be acknowledged that there is a growing belief in certain sections that the media chooses to report cases of communal clashes in a certain way, that is, when the blame can be laid at the doors of the majority community, it makes them an easy scapegoat.

Sawant seems to have tapped into this feeling, as his outrage was quickly retweeted by many, and journalists like Sardesai who criticised his tweets were trolled. However, the fact of the matter is that riots, irrespective of where the needle of suspicion points, have to be covered with greater sensitivity because the media’s role is not merely to inform but also ensure that matters do not get further out of hand.