This week on 'TV Newsance', we try and find out why protesters against the citizenship law are unhappy with the Indian media.
We decided to shoot this week’s episode of TV Newsance in Shaheen Bagh because of the sort of stuff we heard on primetime news.
Here’s a sample: “Shaheen Bagh main siyasi nautanki jaari hai, jo log dharne main pahunch rahe hain unhe toh rozgaar mil gaya hai, jeb main paanch sau rupay aur pet main Biryani.” This means: "There’s political drama on at Shaheen Bagh, those who have landed at the protest site have got some employment, Rs 500 in their pocket, and biryani in their stomach."
Anchors across major news networks such as Zee News, Republic TV, India TV and ABP News have kept the focus on Shaheen Bagh over the past two weeks. Apart from shoddy stings on Times Now and Republic TV, most anchors have labelled the protest site as a “den” of pro-Pakistan, Jinnah-loving anti-nationals who are also anti-Hindu.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and you can confirm this with any journalist who has been reporting from Shaheen Bagh.
The one thing that is true, though, is the traffic snarls that the protest has caused. People from around Shaheen Bagh heading to Noida have especially been affected; what was earlier a half-hour commute can now take more than an hour.
But one can very well make this point without painting the protesters as Dawood Ibrahim’s next of kin. “Shaheen Bagh is a useful epicentre of an anti-Hindu, anti-India, money-guzzling, opportunistic and entirely political movement,” thundered Arnab, repeatedly stressing how the protesters at Shaheen Bagh had “terrorised” people.
While Arnab’s nightly war cries are a source of much hilarity to the TV Newsance team, people at Shaheen Bagh didn’t find the misrepresentation funny. Broadly, they were angry at being portrayed as bikaau, or sellouts, by the media and were very suspicious of journalists, especially those with cameras.
We went with the idea of questioning the people on what they thought about being called “tukde-tukde gang” or “Jinnah lovers” in a lighthearted way, but soon realised this was going to be tough. The anger and deep suspicion were palpable. Every person I spoke with began by saying there was no point talking to the media since they weren’t going to present their issues fairly. After every interview, I was instructed not to cut out soundbites and present them out of context.
One of the women I interviewed told me: “Please don’t cut anything...aap poori baat dikhana.” I told her it was impossible for me to show all of what she had said because of the constraints of time, but I promised I wouldn’t place anything out of context. (This effectively meant we couldn’t use any of the satire devices we had used previously like in the Gangs of Khan Market episode.)
At this point, my colleague Ayush Tiwari, who was there for a report, told me that outside the tent where women were sitting, a TV news anchor had been heckled by a bunch of men. Ayush too had been heckled when he tried to record how the men outside surrounded a TV reporter.
Here’s Ayush’s account.
At 5 pm, an hour before Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad was scheduled to arrive at Shaheen Bagh, I stepped out on to the road leading from the protest site to the overbridge. There were small groups of men surrounding reporters, even young YouTubers or journalists with well-known Facebook accounts.
Suddenly, a cackle broke out. At the bus stop nearby, a few men had started chanting, “Godi media go back”. From what I could see, a TV reporter and his cameraman were encircled, forced to stop recording, heckled, and asked to leave the site. The reporter tried to resist, but gave up after a crowd of men expressed collective displeasure. None of it was polite.
I proceeded to record short videos as this was happening, but in the middle of my second video, a hand intervened and forcefully lowered my phone. A man, in his 40s, said I shouldn’t record anything. I told him I was from the media, showed him my press card, but he did not relent. “You will show that bad things are happening at Shaheen Bagh, you can’t report from here. Go to the stage,” he ordered.
I asked him if he was admitting to doing “bad things” by heckling and booing away journalists. But he was in no mood for an argument.
The attention had shifted to me, and 30-40 men began shouting “Godi media go back” into my ears. I told them I would like to report from where I wanted to, without giving a damn about their diktats, but it did not go down well.
“You will spin this as something negative. Why don’t you show the positive things happening at the main premises?” a young man from the crowd asked. I said other journalists too were busy reporting in that space. “Where and who?” they asked. I waded out of the crowd to point to the reporters I had seen minutes before. But there was no one there.
There was no pushing or shoving from this crowd, they weren’t mad with rage, but they made it clear that the will of the people had been conveyed, and I had to follow it. I couldn’t report from there. Finding no one to listen to my pleas, I left the site.
Still, we felt we should shoot outside and talk to the people. No luck. As soon as I began speaking to a young man, his face painted in tricolour, I was asked to stop.
We had been at Shaheen Bagh only about a month ago when people had spoken to us freely. We had shot for one full hour for our ground report, talking to women, children and men from all over the protest site. There had been no diktats and the crowd had been pleasant and eager to put their point across. What had changed so drastically?
The clear and evident answer is propaganda on TV news. People at Shaheen Bagh clearly felt pushed to the wall by being called anti-national and pro-Pakistan. They felt deeply insulted at the suggestion that they were paid to protest. “How can they say this about our mothers and sisters?” one man asked me. A woman said it made her blood boil.
The other concern was journalists tarring all protesters as ignorant by using soundbites of men, women or children who might not be well-informed or articulate enough on the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. “Aap log ko toh bandar chahiye,” one protester said. "You people just need a monkey."
To counter this, the protesters had made a rule that only women sitting inside the tent would be allowed to speak to the media, not men or random passersby outside the pavilion. This was their media strategy, so to speak, to keep a check on information that flowed out but it clearly wasn’t working.
On Friday, a day after we went to Shaheen Bagh, News Nation anchor Deepak Chaurasia was heckled and stopped from reporting as others had been. Chaurasia has filed an FIR and this must now lead to some introspection among the protesters. “Godi Media”, as they like to call it, is a reality of our times. Do they plan to deal with it through physical intimidation and violence, and give in to the mob mentality they wish to counter? That’s no satyagraha.
There were some men in the crowd who were quite clearly feeling self-important enough to “guide” journalists on how to report and where. These elements should be reigned in, and the protesters must understand it is not the job of a journalist to make them look good or side with their cause. Our job is to gather news, relay information, and sometimes place it in context to help viewers and readers understand the world around them better.
As for media professionals, it’s high time we call out the propagandists amongst us who have made it difficult for reporters to hit the field and go about their jobs. This isn’t about partisanship — but hate-filled propaganda.
It’s one thing to criticise the protests, talk about the traffic mess, or even take positions on primetime news siding with the government and against the protests. Quite another to misrepresent facts, spread lies, and tarnish people’s reputation. While partisanship is something we may just have to accept in opinion-driven news formats, we can’t accept propaganda that puts people’s lives in jeopardy.
Over the past few years, TV news programming has thrived on inciting communal passions, targeting minorities, and indulging in hate speech. This has real-world consequences and has led to ugly endings throughout history. It’s a good time for all of us to understand that the blame here doesn’t lie solely with Shaheen Bagh’s protesters who have good enough reasons to feel pushed to the wall.