Is Bengali media turning a blind eye to political violence?

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Is Bengali media turning a blind eye to political violence?
Shambhavi Thakur
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On June 15, a Facebook post by the Hooghly BJP described the Bengali broadcast media’s coverage of a pair of events that had occurred at 4 pm the previous day.

One event was the leader of the opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, taking a delegation of 50 legislators to the governor to accuse chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress of unleashing “political terror” on BJP’s workers. The other was a press conference addressed by Ritabrata Banerjee, a former Rajya Sabha MP from the CPIM who was recently appointed Bengal chief of Trinamool’s trade union.

“At 4 pm I saw that ABP Ananda and 24 Ghanta were giving live coverage to Ritabrata’s press conference where he was talking about factories in Bengal," the BJP's Facebook post read in Bangla. "Republic Bangla was broadcasting the governor’s press conference live, with members of the Adhikari delegation next to him. News 18 and TV 9 gave a great deal of coverage to Ritabrata’s press conference until they realised they were going overboard and divided the frame in two to give coverage to both. News18 kept the governor on mute for a while so as not to anger Didi. ABP Ananda and 24 Ghanta didn’t give one hoot. ABP Ananda brought the governor in a half-frame near the end of his press conference.”

The post also contained a poster which declared, “Boycott ABP Ananda.”

This wasn’t the first social media post from people associated with the BJP criticising the Bengali media or calling for the boycott of ABP Ananda, a news channel owned by the ABP group, the state’s largest media house which also runs the English daily Telegraph and the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika.

On June 6, Dev Saha, personal assistant to BJP’s state chief, Dilip Ghosh, wrote on Facebook, “Seven days ago, the BJP decided to boycott the ABP group but I request people to extend the boycott to many other channels. You won’t miss any news.”

Anupam Bhattacharya, the Hindutva party’s general secretary in Kolkata South, made the same call the same day. Dulal Bar, head of the party’s Scheduled Caste Morcha, talked up the decision to boycott the media group in a June 14 Facebook post.

Why?

The BJP’s leaders and supporters allege that the ABP group is being biased towards it. But while their anger is directed mainly towards the state’s largest media group, the party’s supporters frequently accuse the Bengali news media in general of having turned pro-Trinamool since Mamata returned to power in May.

On June 5, Himanshu Patra, who runs a Facebook group of over 9,100 BJP followers, urged a boycott of 24 Ghanta, which is run by the Zee group, News18 Bangla and Kolkata TV. The same day, after 24 Ghanta interpreted a statement by Tathagata Roy, who rejoined the BJP after having served as the governor of Tripura and Meghalaya, as a jibe at Adhikari, Roy denounced the channel as “choti chata”, roughly meaning “slipper licker”, an obvious reference to the chief minister, who famously wears slippers everywhere.

But is there truth to BJP’s allegation that the Bengali media in general and the ABP group in particular is biased against it? To an extent, yes, political and media observers in Bengal say.

There has been a shift in the Bengali media’s political coverage, the observers explain: critical coverage of the Trinamool and its government has been scarce since the party retained power for the third straight term.

“This is not just about the Bengali media being anti-BJP, it has turned overwhelmingly pro-Trinamool since the election result was announced,” said Ranjit Sur, a vice president of the state’s largest human rights group, Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights. “We have received many reports of political terror and violence against the workers of the Indian Secular Front. There are genuine reports about torture of people who supported the BJP. But there is hardly any reflection of these happenings in the Bengali media.”

Post-poll violence resulting in the alleged displacement of the workers of opposition parties, mostly of the BJP, has been the chief talking point for the Sangh Parivar’s leaders since the result. They have been boosted by the Calcutta High Court ordering an investigation into complaints of displacement received by the National Human Rights Commission and forming a committee to arrange the return of the displaced people, as also by governor Jagdeep Dhankhar taking regular digs at the state government over the issue.

But political violence has found little space in the Bengali media, print and broadcast. When the media does report on the matter, it's mostly statements of BJP leaders or the governor.

Pradip Singha Thakur, a leader of the CPI Marxist-Leninist Red Star, seconded Sur’s allegations. In June, he claimed, his party helped a group of BJP supporters return to their village, Premganj, in Purba Bardhaman.

“They had fled because BJP’s leaders did not stand by them when they were facing threats from the Trinamool. We helped them return and also ensured they were provided relief material by the local administration,” Thakur said. “The media in the state, however, has maintained absolute silence on political intimidation by the ruling party’s supporters.”

News coverage

To get a sense of how much play political violence gets in the Bengali press, consider for one the coverage given by the top three newspapers – Anandabazar, Bartaman, Ei Samay – to the issue over the week before Adhikari visited governor Jagdeep Dhankhar on June 14 and alleged that 17,000 of his party’s workers and supporters had been driven from their homes.

Anandabazar mentioned political violence twice that week, in a June 7 report quoting union minister Dharmendra Pradhan and in a June 13 report about a BJP meeting led by Adhikari in West Midnapore.

Ei Samay of the Times of India group reported on June 7 that TMC's Kunal Ghosh had helped a BJP supporter’s family return home in Kolkata. The next day, the paper carried a report about the BJP planning to visit the president, Ramnath Kovind, to complain about political violence in Bengal. On June 9, it said a group of people in Birbhum had tendered a public apology for having spread unrest in the area at the BJP’s behest. On June 12, it carried a news brief about the alleged manhandling of a BJP MP, Jayanta Roy, who was trying to bring home displaced party workers.

Bartaman, known to be pro-Trinamool, didn’t give any coverage to the issue at all.

The state’s broadcast media has given similarly scarce coverage to political violence.

In the week ending June 20, for example, 24 Ghanta reported how the Trinamool handed back to the CPIM a party office the governing party had been occupying and noted that there was discontent in the Bengal BJP and its leaders and workers were queuing up to join the Trinamool. There was no mention of political violence, however.

In the same period, ABP Ananda mentioned political violence only while reporting on Mamata rebutting BJP’s accusations, Trinamool MLA Asit Majumdar visiting a BJP supporter’s family and assuring them of protection in case they faced threats, and the “return” of the CPIM office. There was also a report about a Trinamool leader in Bhangar, South 24 Parganas, threatening that no person associated with the BJP would get work under the MGNREGA scheme.

News18 Bangla didn’t have a report on political violence in its South Bengal section but the channel did air a story about the attack on Trinamool leader Sourabh Chakraborty’s house in its North Bengal section.

Kolkata TV did not air any report on political violence in this period.

TV9 Bangla referred to political violence in a June 20 broadcast quoting Dhankhar as well as in a June 18 report on the arrest of BJP leader Khokan Sen on charges of inciting violence. The TV news channel also reported on the high court’s ruling and on Dhankhar sending a letter to the chief minister over political violence and the government’s response to it on June 15 and June 16. Previously it had quoted BJP MP Locket Chatterjee’s allegation that the Trinamool was targeting the Hindutva party’s supporters and reported on Adhikari’s June 14 meeting with the governor.

Only Republic Bangla gave ample coverage to political violence in this period, airing reports about the matter five of the seven days.

The alleged heckling of a National Human Rights Commission delegation in Kolkata’s Jadavpur, where they had gone on the Calcutta High Court’s instruction to investigate a complaint of political violence is another example. ABP Ananda headlined its report on the incident “Central forces accused of lathicharge in Jadavpur, NHRC makes counter-allegation” while TV9 said, “Battlefield Jadavpur: Agitation around HRC team, central forces resort to lathicharge”. Republic Bangla highlighted it as well. News 18 Bangla did not report on the incident nor did 24 Ghanta.

As for the print media, Anandabazar mentioned the alleged heckling in a page 6 report, “Violence: Commission may submit report today”, while Ei Samay ran a brief news story on page 4, headlined “Tension in Jadavpur over commission’s team”. Both reports highlighted Trinamool’s allegation that central forces accompanying the NHRC team had lathi-charged local people.

The high court, however, took strong exception when the NHRC reported the alleged heckling to it on July 2 and issued a notice to a senior police official. The court passed a series of directives, mainly expressing dissatisfaction over the state administration’s role. This news did find some prominence in the July 3 editions of Anandabazar and Ei Samay. Anandabazar carried it briefly on the frontpage and in detail on page 5, while Ei Samay carried it on page 2.

A trend in reporting political violence has been to mention it mainly when political leaders make an allegation or when the high court passes an order regarding it. I found no example of these newspapers or TV channels investigating allegations of political violence and inaction of the state police on their own.

Shirking responsibility?

According to Sambit Pal, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, Dhenkanal, and has authored the book The Bengal Conundrum, the Bengali media hasn’t been playing the role expected of the “fourth pillar” of democracy .

“It is true that the BJP sometimes exaggerated their allegations. Their attempts to give incidents of political violence a communal turn also backfired, as their allegations lost credibility. But why blame the BJP when the people are suffering? The media could have investigated the BJP’s allegations and found out if they were false. Instead they chose to overlook the issue,” he said.

Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, echoed Pal. “The BJP has definitely suffered the brunt of this political violence and intimidation but in many areas workers of the Left parties and the Indian Secular Front led by Abbas Siddiqui have faced terror as well. It is a fact that hundreds of BJP workers and supporters are still forced to stay away from home. The media did not play the role it should have in highlighting these violations of democratic rights,” he said.

He argued that leading media houses have adopted a policy of keeping the governing party in good humour so as to ensure a steady flow of state government ads.

“The situation is similar to how Hindi news channels have been under BJP’s influence,” Chakraborty explained. “The pandemic has only deepened the media’s dependence on government advertisements and parties in power are making use of the situation.”

Columnist Suman Bhattacharya differed, however. “The media has given little space to the allegations of political violence because it is quite evident that the BJP’s charges are highly exaggerated and communally motivated,” he said. “Besides, the BJP workers who are forced to stay away from home are mostly those who had threatened Trinamool workers ahead of the polls of dire consequences after the result. It’s not a one-sided affair.”

He agreed that the media has given less space to the BJP since the result but argued that it was “only normal”. “BJP has lost political significance in Bengal and, therefore, mileage in the media has reduced,” he explained.

A journalist with a leading Bengali TV channel who didn’t want to be identified echoed Bhattacharya. “Since coming to power, the Mamata Banerjee government has not taken any measure that should draw criticism from the media. The majority of the incidents of violence happened between May 2 and 6. Since then, it’s mostly low-intensity local tension around which hype is being created by the BJP,” the journalist said.

A veteran journalist at a leading Bengali daily, however, said the government was using ads to pressure the media. “We’ll lose out on state government ads if we give much space to BJP’s allegations, which in many cases are also exaggerated,” said the journalist, who asked not to be identified.

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