An analysis of Kerala media’s coverage of the Sabarimala issue: Part 1

Senior journalists weigh in on how balanced and responsible the print media was—or wasn’t—in its reporting.

ByAnand Kochukudy
An analysis of Kerala media’s coverage of the Sabarimala issue: Part 1
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Ten years ago, on the evening of 26/11, Economic Times cartoonist Bony Thomas was lounging at home in his 11th-floor flat in Colaba, watching the day-night India-England One Day International (ODI) being played in Cuttack. When his favourite player Virender Sehwag got out in the nineties, Thomas remembers switching off the TV in exasperation and hearing some noises from outside, but he didn’t make much of it. Soon, he received a call from his colleague in Delhi. That’s when he realised what was going on outside and at a stone’s throw away at Leopold Cafe.

Bony Thomas recounts how an ex-colleague from Kerala Kaumudy daily got in touch with him later that night as he remained at home, followed by media channels back home in Kerala. The next morning, he found himself live-reporting for all media channels in Kerala. “That’s where my training as a journalist came in handy. I was careful to weigh my words and to make sure that I was reporting responsibly without any sensationalism”. A founder-member of the Kochi Biennale, Thomas is now settled in Kerala and has quit active journalism after fairly long stints as a cartoonist with Economic Times and Business Standard.

Ask him about the Kerala media’s coverage of the Sabarimala verdict and its aftermath and he is unimpressed. “The media hasn’t been vigilant. They were adding fuel to the fire. The print media was no exception,” says Thomas.

Paul Zackaria, renowned writer and social critic, agrees. For Kerala dailies with their legacy dating back a century, he calls this a low phase. “There isn’t much fact-checking. The protestors are hogging disproportionate space in the dailies. It seemed many of these dailies were tacitly endorsing the protests with their coverage.” In fact, Zackaria apportions a major part of the blame to the print media and dailies, rather than the 24/7 news channels in Kerala. “Some of these dailies have been around for more than a century and they make a bigger impact on people.”

Senior journalist Jacob George disagrees with this assertion. According to him, Kerala dailies have, by and large, been professional and responsible. “It is the duty of newspapers to report. You can find fault with them for not doing deeper analysis and fact-checking of claims by political parties. But you can’t fault them for highlighting all sides of a story and for attempting to strike a balance.”

Ask him if these dailies with their rich legacy have upheld the values of reform and renaissance movement and pat comes the reply—“I think so, yes.” But what does he think of Zackaria’s opinion? “Well, there is no point in my reacting to his opinion. But I can’t agree with Zackaria on this.”

BRP Bhaskar, widely-respected veteran journalist and political commentator, echoes Zackaria. “I think the media, in general, weren’t restrained. Even Manorama and Mathrubhumi weren’t cautious enough for newspapers with their kind of reach. When emotions are too strong and tempers run high, the media ought to have been more responsible.”

Sebastian Paul, well-known Left intellectual and media critic, agrees. “The media has been needlessly sensational and generally reported from the perspective of the protestors. Police actions were negatively portrayed and the distinction between devotees and trouble-makers obliterated. Even a daily like Deepika was following this template for no reason.”

That vanishing of the distinction between protestors and devotees in the media seems to be the crux of the problem. In the guise of taking a “balanced stand”, the newspapers seem to have not taken a clear stand at all on the issue. Most channels and even the print media unwittingly championed the Right-wing cause by not clearly demarcating the devotees from the protestors and separating politics from faith. “Being in the vicinity of the temple doesn’t make everyone assembled there a devotee. The goons employed by the Right-wing elements to create trouble are motivated by politics and not devotion,” says Bhaskar.

Would it be fair or far-fetched to compare this phase to Kerala media’s collective abdication and manufacturing of stories during the 1995 ISRO spy scandal episode? According to Paul Zackaria, “That case affected only an X number of people. This is much bigger in scale and has the potential to affect the secular nature of people in Kerala.” BRP Bhaskar agrees: “That was more of a political issue and there was no emotional dimension to that case. I don’t think it would be a fair comparison.”

Could it be the case that this strategy is influenced by market and circulation considerations? Bhaskar contends that the editorial policy of media houses have long been influenced by such considerations and this episode is no different. MN Karassery, social critic and writer, finds fault with the media for “appeasing the regressive elements of the society for petty considerations”. According to him, “the opportunistic and regressive stand of political parties like the Congress too fed into this narrative.”

A senior journalist, who did not want to be named, put it in perspective: “If you look at the most circulated daily (Manorama, with a circulation of nearly 25 lakh in Kerala), they have been playing all sides on this issue. As for Mathrubhumi, they have been facing a crisis over a period of time. They were narrowing the gap between them and Manorama but their circulation has gone down by a couple of lakhs in the last couple of years. A curated comment republished in their print section hurt the sentiments of a section of Muslims for apparently disrespecting the prophet in 2016. Then the Meesha controversy this year saw even the Nair Service Society (NSS) taking a position against the daily, apart from the Sangh Parivar. Even a section of the Christian community has turned against them after they took a strong position on Bishop Franco’s case. In any case, Mathrubhumi’s readership is mostly made up of Hindus and they couldn’t have taken the risk of alienating more subscribers following the Sabarimala verdict.”

Also, are there other factors at play, like anti-Communist impulses of a certain section of the media? BRP Bhaskar doesn’t think so. “It is true that some of the media houses have traditionally been hostile to Communists. But I would never take the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s charge of a media syndicate working against them seriously.”  

(Note: The CPI (M) has often resorted to a victimhood narrative of a media syndicate working against them in Kerala. The role of the media in stoking vimochana samaram, or liberation struggle, in 1959 is held up as proof.)

The debate around media houses collectively diluting their initial (strident) position on Sabarimala and toning it down to appease reactionary elements is a contentious one. It is a fact that media houses backpedalled from their relatively strong position in the initial days to a more neutral one.

Senior journalist George Podippara believes this dilution or toning down is a result of what followed in the aftermath of the verdict. “When women hit the streets in huge numbers as part of namajapa yatras (prayer processions), the media houses realised the magnitude of the situation and the dangers of taking sides. There was a clear division with believers on one side and the non-believers and progressive people on the other. Even the minority groups were backing the protestors and it seemed the collective conscience of Kerala was against the judgement.”

How did the electronic media fare vis-à-vis print? An analysis of this will also need to look at the ratings spike of BJP mouthpiece Janam TV over the past month and its impact on other news channels under the purview of this analysis. We’ll explore that in Part 2 of this series.

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