TV channels have had more noise than substance, and coverage focuses on just one thing – the viral video.
This “breaking news” took more than two months to break. I am referring, of course, to the so-called “viral video”, a term that hides the real content of that video. For it ought to be remembered as “the sexual assault video” of Kuki women, disrobed and paraded naked by a mob of Meitei men in the ethnic strife-torn state of Manipur on May 4, 2023. One of them was later gang-raped.
Two weeks ago, when I wrote my last column, one could count the number of stories, especially in national media, on the ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur. Today, post the video going public, this north-eastern state has become the focus of politics and media in the “mainland”.
Much has been spoken and written since July 19 when the video was shared on social media platforms. It provoked shock, disgust, anger, sorrow but also frustration that this atrocity was not reported earlier. It could and should have been as subsequent reports have revealed that an FIR had been registered on May 18, a fortnight after the assault, but that it took the Manipur police more than a month before it took some tentative steps. It finally moved and made arrests, as is now known, only when Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh was compelled to take note.
A question that should be asked about the video is what the man who shot the video, who was obviously part of the mob, was thinking.
Was he inspired by the ghastly videos we have seen with sickening regularity on social media in the last 10 years, of the lynching of Muslim men by mobs of self-appointed cow-protectors? These men loaded their videos on social media without any compunction for they knew there would be no consequences. It was also a way for them to demonstrate their masculinity and virility.
In this case, it could have been all this as well as demonstrating the time-worn method of teaching the men of the “other” side a lesson, by assaulting and raping “their” women. We still do not yet know how the video travelled from the phone of the man who shot it to social media. Could he and his friends, much like the lynch mobs in “mainland” India, have done this to show off without realising what the consequences would be?
Now there is a new twist with the Centre asking the CBI to investigate. The man who allegedly shot the video has been apprehended, and his phone seized. In the end we might never know the true story.
Another question: although the volume of coverage on Manipur has exploded since July 19, has it helped viewers and readers to understand what has been happening there for almost three months? Or has it, as happens with most issues in this country, been reduced to a story about politicians and politics?
Predictably, most television channels have reduced this to a debating point between political opponents. The usual whataboutery is being witnessed, exemplified par excellence by Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare, Smriti Irani’s dramatic statement in the Rajya Sabha on July 26 where, amongst other things, she claimed Rahul Gandhi put Manipur on fire.
The signal for this strategy – of always blaming the opposition for anything that is uncomfortable for the government to address – came, of course, from the prime minister. He finally “broke his silence” a full 79 days after the troubles erupted in Manipur, only to churn out meaningless platitudes.
What is worse, he used even his brief statement, made outside Parliament rather than on the floor of the House, to dilute the gravity of what's happening in Manipur by adding that women were unsafe in states like Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh (that happen to be opposition-ruled) and that all chief ministers should take steps to ensure women’s safety. He appears to have missed the main point – that the Manipur video was not about the safety of individual women, but about the assault on women during an ethnic conflict despite the presence of police and in a state governed by his party.
We must also acknowledge that despite more coverage of Manipur in this last week, the media has been unable to push this government to act. Would things have been different if mainstream media had recognised earlier the gravity of the situation in Manipur and reported more extensively?
What is obvious is that it was not anything reported by any established media, but a video amplified on social media that finally drove Modi to make a statement of sorts. Yet he continues to resist facing parliamentarians on the floor of the House.
Also, although even government friendly television channels have been compelled now to mention the “M” word after ignoring it for two long months, what they are putting out is more noise than substance, adding nothing to the understanding of viewers about the nature of the conflict or the extent of its impact on thousands of ordinary people. It also puts absolutely no pressure on the government to act.
And as was evident even after Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Manipur on June 29, the discussions on these TV channels centre around politicians and political parties, and not the central issue of why things have deteriorated in Manipur to a point where we are witnessing something close to a civil war. Nor has anyone asked why Modi continues to use every chance to attack the opposition, lately mocking the acronym INDIA, at a time when all sides need to sit together to seek a solution on an issue like Manipur.
Unlike television, several national newspapers like Indian Express, The Hindu and others have been reporting extensively and providing explainers that provide useful background. And despite limited resources, digital media platforms like Scroll, Wire, Print, Quint and Newslaundry have maintained a steady focus on Manipur.
However, in the current media scramble for exclusive stories, even digital platforms can fall into the trap of overlooking basic journalistic norms before running with a story.
For instance, in this troubling story in The Print about the disappearance of two young people, the reporter acknowledges that the video mentioned by the girl's family that makes them believe their daughter is dead is unverified. Given the proliferation of fake videos, and the fact that one such video triggered the violence in early May, should not reporters be careful before running with such a story? Apart from checking with the police, there are now ways to verify the authenticity of videos that go “viral”. Note that a gruesome video of a beheading of a girl from Myanmar was passed off as one from Manipur and there has been an FIR filed in this case.
The Print story also quotes an anonymous member of a Meitei group saying that the girl had been raped. Should such information be shared in a story when the police haven't even found the body? In any case, given the way rumours have already triggered sexual violence, shouldn't journalists be exceptionally careful before amplifying unverified information like this? Even in so-called "normal" times there are basic norms that have to be followed when reporting rape. This becomes even more crucial during conflict to ensure that the media does not exacerbate already inflamed emotions.
As Manipur continues to simmer, the media, both mainstream and independent will be challenged to maintain their credibility even as they try to convey a truthful picture of what is happening in this divided state.
Meanwhile, how have people in Manipur, and the local media located mostly in Imphal, the state’s capital responded to the video? This report in Scroll is significant as it reveals the extent to which the ethnic divide has inserted itself into the media in Manipur.
As for Modi’s statement, the comments were interesting. Imphal Times had a front-page collage showing Meitei deaths and inside, in an editorial it stated:
“After 75 days of eerie silence, Mr Modi finally spoke, but to the dismay of many, he addressed only one incident – the purported video showing two women parading naked…Mr Modi’s selective response raises questions about his motives. Many see his statements as an attempt to play the gender card and manipulate emotions to divert attention from the core issue – the urgent need for peace and stability in Manipur.”
Kuki women, speaking to independent journalist Greeshma Kuthar, who has been based in Manipur since June 4, have a different take, as we hear in this long podcast in Suno India. While they are glad that the media and the government have woken up to the situation in the state, they resent the obsession with incidents of sexual violence. One of them points out that speaking repeatedly to the survivors forces them to live through the trauma again. And they appeal to journalists from the “mainland” to try to understand the larger picture of what’s going on in the state and to report on it, rather than focussing just on one aspect because of the video.
They suggest, for instance, that there should be more reporting on how over 50,000 people living in an estimated 349 temporary relief camps are surviving. On his visit to Manipur on June 29, Rahul Gandhi went to both Kuki and Meitei camps and as a result we saw some visuals. Since then, although there have been a few reports (read here , here and here) about conditions in these camps, we clearly need more. We do not know, for instance, whether there is any discrimination in the release of funds to the camps in the Kuki areas which appear to be largely run by civil society organisations.
Manipur is a story that will not disappear. From all indications, its ripple effects are already being felt in other states in the region.
It reminds us in the “mainland” media that we cannot continue to view what’s happening there as a “breaking” story needing a one-time investment to overcome the “tyranny of distance”, the phrase used to explain the late and minimal coverage. It ought to have been an integral part of our reporting. If it had, perhaps the May 4 sexual assault video would not have had the shock value that it did.
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