“Negativity, negativity, negativity,” intoned India's solicitor general, Tushar Mehta, in the Supreme Court on May 28. He was referring to the media and others critical of the government during hearings on the notice that the apex court had taken up suo motu on the worker exodus.
"Positivity, positivity, positivity," was Narendra Modi's government gave to media owners before the first national lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 was announced on March 24.
Between these two dates, and the expression of these two sentiments lies the chasm between the government’s understanding of the role of the media in a democracy, and what the media understands as its role in a functioning democracy.
This negative-positive binary that this government in particular seems determined to pursue, not just in relation to the media but also to any opposition to its ideas and plans, is something that all of us need to be worried about. For civil society critics, there is the real and present danger of being arrested on all manner of charges ranging from sedition to terrorism.
As for the media, for the six years that the Modi government has held office, much of mainstream media has chosen the "positivity" message, finding no contradiction in openly cheerleading for the government. Fortunately, a few continue to cling on to what they perceive as their role of holding the government to account. But their numbers are dwindling as economic and political pressures chip away at their resilience.
Coming back to the solicitor general’s “negativity” rant, should the media be considered “negative” because it has persisted with the story of the exodus of workers from our cities? This story has refused to disappear for over two months after the first batch of workers began to find ways to return to their homes. It is a story that could not be avoided, need alone be faked as the government suggested at one point. In its sheer magnitude and its many tragic outcomes, no journalist or media house worth their salt could have turned their gaze away.
In fact, because the stories continue to pour in, the visuals are still printed on a daily basis and the moving images are shared on social media, India's highest court was compelled to wake up and take suo motu cognisance of the unprecedented tragedy unfolding in this country.
Why has the media persisted with the story?
Even if one goes by the cynical criteria of what mainstream media chooses to cover, this is one story that fits the bill. In its size – literally thousands of people on the move; its pathos – the way they chose to travel; and the tragedy – of the people who died enroute or just after they got to their destination. Also proximity – the fact that the workers left from large metropolitan centres where the media is based. This ensured that the story could not be missed.
Imagine if the situation was in the reverse. That because of hunger, starvation and lack of work, thousands of people had set off on foot from their villages to the cities. They would still be deemed “migrants” because they were migrating to another place in search of sustenance. But it would have taken a while longer for the media to wake up to what was happening because it was not in their backyard.
Yet, I would argue, even in this reverse hypothetical scenario, the story would have had to be covered. And even if this imagined exodus had been triggered by callous government policy, as it has been in the present instance, it would not matter. The politics of individual media houses would not be able to obscure this "event", given its size and spread.
Something similar is happening in the United States in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis. Even media houses that are generally supportive of President Donald Trump, such as Fox News, have covered the protests extensively.
In both India and the US, although the stories are very different, the government, or its agents, is choosing to literally shoot the messenger instead of paying heed to the substance of the stories.
In India, journalists have not been attacked by the police for covering the worker exodus story. But the solicitor general compared journalists to “vultures” in his intervention in the Supreme Court. This is an old and tired trope based on the in famine-gripped South Sudan shot in 1993 by the late Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Kevin Carter.
That Mehta brought this up is not surprising, but it is more than a little amusing that he got his facts wrong because they were based on a WhatsApp message that was being circulated, as story in AltNews points out.
The comparison between vultures and news gatherers has persisted through decades. It is not always a simple choice for a journalist on the beat to decide whether to intervene in a humanitarian crisis or during conflict before filing the story, or to wait until the story is out and then see how to help.
, one of the three Associated Press photographers from Jammu and Kashmir who recently won a Pulitzer, chose to intervene in 2017 when he put aside his camera and carried an injured girl to safety during a violent incident in Kashmir.
On the other hand, if the information does not get out at that instance, there is also a possibility of many more lives lost, or greater tragedies unfolding. So it is a tough choice that journalists make and live with. Furthermore, the mental stress that they encounter is not fully recognised or addressed. And there are those who cannot live with it, as in who took his own life within months of winning the Pulitzer.
In the case of the worker exodus story in India, the image that lingers is that of the that covered his dead mother at the Muzaffarpur station. The video was seen widely, it was not shot by a journalist, but its authenticity was not in doubt. Journalists spoke to the woman's brother-in-law with whom she was travelling and followed up with the family after they managed to return to their village.
Often, a few such images memorialise an entire story. What is “negative” about them, in the government's language? I would argue that telling such a story is the “positive” of a free press in a democracy. This story, amongst many others, has shaken even the most indifferent into "seeing" the invisible millions that are also citizens of this country.
Similarly, if ordinary people had not filmed George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis, and the media had not taken it on, we would not have witnessed the outpouring on the streets across the US as people demand an end to the brutality of the police and the entrenched racism in the law-enforcing machinery.
The media that set out to cover these demonstrations has also been targeted by the police, but selectively. report in the Washington Post states: "For black journalists, the civil unrest in cities across America isn’t just a big story. It’s personal." The story recounts the number of incidents where black reporters were specifically targeted by the police, including the now famous incident of being arrested even as he was politely negotiating with the police about where he and his crew should stand to report.
In the US, these incidents have yet again exposed the persistence of racial bias in all spheres, including in the media. In fact, as the Post story points out, despite the 1968 Kerner Commission that exposed the problems with a white-dominated media, and the efforts since then to make newsrooms more diverse, an analysis of newsroom composition in 2018 showed that 77 percent of employees are white. An of newsrooms in India throws up similar statistics of the domination of upper caste Hindus.
It is not entirely paradoxical that the media in the US and India face similar challenges. In the US, the media has to contend with a president who is constantly deriding it and dismissing anything critical as fake. In India, we have a government that is not averse to using its powers to enforce "positivity" and patriotism in the media, and insisting that anything else is untrue and unpatriotic.
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