Sections of the media are well-versed at either demonising issues or ignoring them.
Media has the power to kill civil society movements by simply ignoring them. It can distort what they stand for, and sections of the media do this all too frequently, but even this is better than blacking them out together.
A case in point is the farmers' agitation that has now crossed 300 days.
Last year, when farmers from Punjab, Haryana, UP and other states gathered on the borders of New Delhi and protested the passage through Parliament of three laws that affected their lives and livelihood, the Delhi-based so-called "national" media was compelled to take note. Even negative coverage made people in the rest of the country aware that something important was happening.
But since then, barring days when there were clashes with the police, as on Republic Day this year, a good section of mainstream media, particularly television, chose to side step this massive gathering even as world media took note.
And now, on September 27, when the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a coalition of many different groups participating in the agitation, called for a Bharat Bandh, all we read or heard was news about traffic jams, inconvenience to urban commuters, and about "the public held to ransom".
Why did the farmers call for a bandh? Did people realise that the day marked a year since the government passed the three "black" laws, as the agitating farmers called them? Why was the government not listening to their demands? Public memory is notoriously short. People forget, unless reminded, why such a long-drawn out peaceful protest continues. This is what needed to be reported alongside the immediate developments through the day such as traffic slowdowns etc.
To sustain a protest involving such large numbers is no small achievement. The protesters have been determined, but also imaginative in their outreach, effectively using social media to document and spread their news. All the while knowing that the response of mainstream Indian media would be lukewarm at best and silent at worst.
Writing about the farmers' protest, social anthropologist AR Vasavi, points out in an op-ed in Indian Express, “Barring a few newspapers and television channels, the mainstream media has not only blocked out news and updates of the movement but has resorted to spreading disinformation and calumny against the movement. The media has largely succumbed to the dictates of the state and corporate interests and has failed in its democratic responsibilities. In deploying their own media to disseminate information and to represent themselves, the farmers have not only become media-savvy but have indicated that sharing information and open communication are key to democratic movements."
She is right.
The media on the whole has "succumbed to the dictates of the state and corporate interests and has failed in its democratic responsibilities." It has followed a predictable script to snuffle out a social movement, by ignoring it or demonising it. Thus it has ensured that the government too can continue to do so.
Yet, this same media picks and chooses the agitations it deems worthy of coverage. Think back to 2011 and the India Against Corruption campaign led by Anna Hazare. Or 2012 and the outrage that followed the gangrape of a young woman in a Delhi bus. All media, especially TV, gave the protests that followed blanket coverage. In 2012, media focus played an important part in putting pressure on the United Progressive Alliance government to pay heed to demands of changes in the rape law. A committee was set-up under the chairmanship of the late Justice JS Verma. A report was ready within a month. Some changes were made in the law. And the case itself was fast-tracked. In March 2020, four of the accused, who had been awarded the death penalty, were hanged.
By way of contrast, take what is happening in what came to be known as the "Hathras horror". On September 14, 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gangraped in fields near her house in Hathras, UP. She survived long enough to give a dying declaration and name the rapists, four upper caste men from her village. On September 29, she died in the hospital where she was being treated for her injuries.
In this case too, there was an initial spurt of media attention, especially following the hurried cremation of the girl by the police against the family's wishes. But since then, there has been virtual silence. There have been no demonstrations demanding justice for her. The state government has hardly said anything; nor has the central government. And even as the case drags on, the family of this girl – who have been provided protection by the state – live in dread of the vengeance the powerful and dominant upper castes in the village could take on them and other Dalits.
An integral part of effective journalism is follow-up. You don't report on something just once. You keep checking to see what is happening and continue reporting. This ensures that important issues do not slip under the radar; that both the public and governments are informed.
In the Hathras case, a handful in the media has remembered that September 29 marks one year since the death of the Dalit girl.
Nidhi Suresh from Newslaundry, who has followed the case closely over this year, paints a picture of the fear in the handful of Dalit families living in the village, and particularly what the friends of the victim experience every day. The report emphasises yet again the importance of follow up because the story is far from over with the arrest of the accused. Without media spotlight, who is to say what will happen in a place of such heightened inequality, where the power of the state can subvert the justice system, not just by constant delays but by fudging evidence, too, as was attempted in this case.
A story on the BBC website describes the threats and intimidation that Seema Kushwaha, the lawyer representing the family, faces in court. On most days, she says, the police have to escort her car to the state border for her own safety and her appeal to move the case out of the district has been rejected.
The Hindustan Times, in its report on Hathras, quotes Manjula Pradeep, director of the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network: “The initial focus on Hathras ensured that things moved but over the past year, the pace has slowed, the trial is sluggish and things are back to being difficult for the family. There is hardly any improvement in the condition of local Dalit women, and the power structure continues to be dominated by the upper castes.” More reason for the media to keep its eye on such cases. Yet, only a handful of media organisations persist in reporting on cases that are neither high profile or urban based.
How has our media descended to this level where issues that matter to ordinary people are routinely ignored? According to US president Joe Biden, the Indian media is "much better behaved" than the US media. He said this in an off-the-cuff remark during his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington. But is that a compliment? The media's job is not to “behave well” but to make the powerful uncomfortable.
Aunindyo Chakravarty, in an article in Newslaundry, suggests that the Indian media has turned into a public relations machine for the government and corporations. And part of the reason, he writes, is the economics of running media houses, especially television.
In fact, it is cringe worthy that after the prime minister returned from his short visit to the US, leading newspapers like the Times of India and Hindustan Times felt not the slightest bit embarrassed in carrying agency reports that described in glowing terms how Modi is able to overcome jet lag by tuning his body clock to the country to which he travels!
However, the changes in media business models began in the 1990s. Until 2013, the media on the whole was far from a PR machine. In fact, the mainstream media was quite critical of the previous UPA government.
In the last seven years, since Modi and the BJP came to power, the change is noticeable. A large part of the Indian media has chosen to be cheerleaders for the ruling party, and in particular for the prime minister. The reasons may be partly economic, but many have also made a conscious choice to join the chorus line and “behave” themselves.