No, ‘tyranny of distance’ isn’t a valid excuse.
The mainstream media has long been accused of not providing adequate coverage to problems of Northeast India. In response, seasoned journalists such as Rajdeep Sardesai have often used the phrase “tyranny of distance” as an explanation of sorts, albeit superficial.
In 2015, floods ravaged Assam, inundating thousands of villages. While floods are an annual affair in Assam, the 2015 deluge was particularly destructive, especially for Dibrugarh city which was completely submerged. As every year, a group of us activists started talking about the calamity on social media, including the lack of its coverage by the media. Sardesai responded by blaming it on the “tyranny of distance”. However, he later flew to Dibrugarh and extensively reported on the floods and their aftermath.
At that time, I wrote a Facebook post explaining why “tyranny of distance” didn’t hold as an explanation for the absence of media’s interest. I pointed out that both Guwahati and Dibrugarh had fully functioning airports and could be reached in a few hours from New Delhi. So, “tyranny of distance” was no more than an excuse, a way for journalists to cover up their inability or lack of will to cover the unfolding disaster.
My post generated a fair bit of discussion. The vast majority of the respondents agreed with my contention but a few believed that we should rather be grateful to a “prominent voice” such as Sardesai for actually covering the floods. It was clear that the people of Assam were so used to “negligence” from the mainstream media that any little coverage elicited gratitude. Sardesai would later recall getting a “tearful email” post his reportage.
“Tyranny of distance” really is a myth, though. It doesn’t exist, at least not in a geographical sense. It’s cognitive. And cognitive distance isn’t limited to the mainstream media, it’s quite pervasive. The “national media” seldom bothers with problems of ordinary citizens but can’t have enough of elections, conflicts, and political gossip. Similarly, regional media outlets in the Northeast don’t deem concerns of tribals and minority communities important enough to merit more than token coverage.
Case in point: nearly 2,000 people from Assam’s Mising tribe have been protesting outside the Tinsukia deputy commissioner’s office since December 21. They are from Laika and Dodhia inside the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, known for feral horses, and are demanding permanent rehabilitation, as promised by the Assam government several decades ago. The protesters, including children and the elderly, are staying in tarpaulin tents that aren’t enough protection against the cold. They are also running out of food, surviving on rations supplied by social organisations such as the Takam Mising Porin Kebang, or the All Mising students Union.
Yet, the protest received little coverage in regional and national media. It was left to citizen journalists and activists to spread word about the protest on social media and draw the attention of journalists to it, explain the demands, and connect them to those leading it on the ground.
It worked to an extent. In the last week, the protest has been covered by a handful of national and regional media outlets. The government sent its representatives to meet with the protesters and later formed a “high level committee” to prepare a rehabilitation plan by January 31, 2021.
A critical look at the media’s coverage of the protest, however, offers interesting insights. First is that the demands of marginalised people such as the Mising don’t organically feature in media discourses, nationally or regionally. They must fight for some space. That a protest by nearly 2,000 people, camping out in the cold in tarpaulin tents since December 21, was ignored by the media until activists made some noise on social media indicates structural neglect.
Second, much of the coverage by media outlets based in Assam has been shoddy. They have reproduced each other’s reports which are replete with factual errors. For example, most of the reports mention that both Laika and Dodhia are in Tinsukia district. This isn’t correct. Laika, which comprises three villages, is in Tinsukia but Dodhia, which includes four villages, is in neighbouring Dibrugarh. The reports, moreover, do not provide any contextual explanation of the Mising people’s plight and demands. In fact, even their demands are not explained clearly.
Third, some of the earlier coverage on Laika and Dodhia reeks of prejudice. A 2005 story in the Telegraph mentions that the Assam government was alarmed by the growth in the Mising population from 1950 to 2001. It doesn’t point out that this growth was only natural. Or did the daily mean to convey that the Mising shouldn’t have reproduced for over 50 years?
The story commends the proposed rehabilitation plan for the people of Laika and Dodhia as a “green respite” because they were alleged to have harmed the park’s ecology. It fails to note that the Mising didn’t come to the region on their own, they were relocated by the state after the 1950 earthquake. And when they were settled, it was only a forest reserve, which was upgraded to a wildlife sanctuary in 1986 and then to a national park in 1999. They weren’t consulted when any of these changes were made.
The area had metalled roads, schools and a health centre, but once the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park was notified, the villagers of Laika and Dodhia overnight lost access to government facilities and welfare schemes because no human activity is allowed inside a “protected national forest”.
It’s well understood that how the mainstream media represents a people or a situation often shapes popular discourse. Because the media has long depicted India’s traditional forest dwellers, mostly indigenous tribes, as “encroachers” who wantonly damage the ecology, they have come to be seen as such in popular imagination. Such depictions, of course, ignore the sustainable relationships that communities such as the Mising have with their forests. The protesters in Tinsukia are, in fact, asking to be rehabilitated outside the park. That’s not all. They are even demanding the government invest more in the park and conserve it better. This flies in the face of accusations that the Mising are intent on wrecking the forest and its ecological wealth.
The media outlets covering Laika and Dodhia, therefore, shouldn’t just blandly report on the protest, but also explain its sociopolitical context and the consequences of existing conservation policies. They should also point out the implications of demonising marginalised people such as the Mising. The villagers of Laika and Dodhia are indigenous people whose rights as tribals and forest dwellers have been violated over and over again. It’s only fair that the media pay attention to and accurately convey the plight of a marginalised people trying to hold the government to its promises. They have been waiting decades to be heard. How much longer?
Manoranjan Pegu is a trade union activist based in Delhi.