Sucheta Dalal :Should the media be more restrained in its reportage?
Sucheta Dalal

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Should the media be more restrained in its reportage?  

September 20, 2001

India is no stranger to crises -- wars, hijackings, plane crashes -- we have seen them all.

Floods, cyclones and drought occur in some part of the country almost every year; we've had catastrophic earthquakes and dealt with shattering events such as the Bhopal gas tragedy and the serial bomb blasts in Bombay.

Also in the background is the steady lament of the victims of terrorism and sectarian violence -- Khalistan, Kashmir, ULFA, LTTE and the communal riots and massacres that erupt with regularity in various pockets of our richly diverse nation.

Recollect any of these tragedies and look at the picture that they conjure up. It is invariably one of despair, mis-management, bungling, inadequate information and poor or callous leadership.

The exceptions, arguably, were the Latur earthquake and to some extent the serial bomb blasts. In both cases, the administrative machinery worked with the people to provide efficient relief and rescue services.

Contrast this with the recent US tragedy. The efficiency, sensitivity and discipline of the US authorities along with the amazing restraint displayed by their media has now become a subject of debate in India.

Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express, succinctly highlighted the contrasts in his column on September 15; T N Ninan asks readers to say whether Indians should be stubbornly questioning or take to flag waving like the popular American media?

A simple answer would be that if the administration behaved like that in America it would be a lot easier to be supportive and simply wave a flag. The US government's reaction has been to stand up and taking responsibility and reach out to the people.

The President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of State and the Mayor of New York are constantly meeting people, answering questions, explaining the situation and demonstrably working to identify the culprits and rebuild confidence.

This week, Arun Jaitley, the Minister for Law, Justice and Company Affairs, decided to take the debate forward with his own interesting interpretation. At a couple of meetings in Bombay, Jaitley praised the American people for their patriotic response and the exemplary unity and solidarity displayed in their hour of crisis.

He pointed out that Americans did not indulge in the blame game or demand the resignation of their leaders; their Press asked very few questions and shied away from showing dead mutilated bodies and injured people.

He wanted us to do the same. The popular and articulate Jaitley was saying exactly what Gupta and others had, except that he is a ruling party politician and as an important Cabinet minister.

In a country that has frequently tried to gag the Press, it is important for the media to take a serious look at his arguments.

Many of Jaitley's arguments are admittedly valid. Sections of the popular media are often immature and do tend to whip up a frenzy in the pursuit of sound bites and colour.

It also tends to devote hours of television time and acres of newsprint to corrupt and unscrupulous politicians, simply because they are available and willing to say something outrageous.

Business, sports and civic reportage too have a lot of planted stories and very little serious investigation until there is a crisis or a scam.

The reportage on the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar is the among the worst examples that I can recall. I remember switching on CNN which had a live telecast of the ill-fated aircraft on its uncertain and hesitant flight that finally ended at Kandahar.

Flip to our popular news channel and you saw a chit of a television reporter standing amidst anxious relatives of the hijack victims and screeching into the camera about how Indian Airlines was providing no information.

She then thrust the camera into their faces; predictably each of them spewed vituperation against the government and Indian Airlines. I remember exclaiming: "For God's sake, the plane hasn't even landed! I'm sure the pilot himself does not know his destination or fate."

It is true that Indian Airlines often behaves exactly like the government does. It is stingy with information, designates junior officials to deal with the serious task of communicating with the relatives and the people, and is often simply insensitive.

But in retrospect, let us remember that Indian Railways and Indian Airlines have always released passenger lists within four to five hours after any tragedy. Contrast this with September 11 -- the passenger lists of the three doomed American aircraft was not flashed by any of the news channels for nearly 12 hours or more after the tragedy.

There is also the question of accountability and responsibility. Having admired the US media's restraint in their coverage and their refusal to show blood, gore, dead bodies or body bags, one cannot help asking some questions.

Is such restraint good for India or even for the US? Does it help to shield people from the horrors of terrorism? And will it serve the people if the Indian media refused to go beyond flag-waving patriotism and candlelight vigils?

Let us not forget that coffins of young soldiers that came back from Kargil were a huge rallying point for the nation. India has a high level of corruption, a lethargic bureaucracy and is low on accountability. Investigations are long drawn and often aimless; those in power are rarely sacked for incompetence unless the media sets up a serious clamour for justice.

People have so little faith in their elected representatives that they expect the media to push government into action. Yet, for all the hysteria that we hacks may whip up, it has little long-term impact.

The victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy got a rotten deal. The compensation was paltry and they continue to suffer despite extensive global coverage of the tragedy. Union Carbide -- the US company responsible for gross negligence also got away real easy.

The 1993 bomb blast trail continues to meander through our courts; its main architects -- Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon are safely ensconced in Pakistan along with their families. A country that the US has always protected and armed and equated with India.

In Gujarat, the avalanche of criticism over the handling of the earthquake which killed more than 20,000 people last year made no difference the pace of relief work. Several corporate houses who wanted to rebuild flattened villages have given up their plans after being given a run-around by the government.

The worst example is Orissa. A couple of years ago a devastating cyclone showed up the most horrific administrative disorder and lack of concern for human life.

This year, the people are dying of starvation and the administration continues to be just as callous as the earlier one. Both in Orissa and in Gujarat, middlemen and administrators have preyed on the victims and siphoned off food and relief material meant for the people.

Some of these are tragedies were extensively covered by the world media but the bad publicity hardly embarrassed the government. How can one plead for restrained reportage in such a situation?

As a people we are already de-sensitised to a great deal of suffering and inured to terrorist killings and calamities because we see it all around us. We certainly need more mature reporting, but not meaningless restraint. We have to keep asking questions.

In the US, the serious publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, Time and The New York Times have slowly begun to ask questions. It is safe to assume that the popular media in India would certainly have questioned the obvious intelligence failure. The USA spends billions of dollars on the CIA's avowed intelligence and counterintelligence network that allegedly extends across the globe. Serious questions have to be asked about the efficacy of these agencies, because America is the last super power and its foreign policy is influenced by intelligence provided by these agencies.

Surely, the refusal to act against a barbaric Taleban regime, the support to Pakistan and much of its antipathy towards India is based on their dispatches.

The American people have our deepest sympathy, but we cannot forget that America did not speak out against Pakistan harbouring the perpetrators of the serial bomb blasts that shattered Bombay.

As for the gruesome pictures and mutilated bodies, please remember Bhopal. The picture that comes to mind is the award-winning photograph of half-buried baby's face. Those were not the pictures of an Indian photographer.

Maybe the world is less sensitive to mutilated photographs of a Third World tragedy and more sensitive to death and destruction of their own.

Nevertheless, we need those pictures and stories to force some seriousness among our administrators. After all our coverage and our questions are tailored to our situation and sensitivities. So let us not turn falsely coy because the Americans did things differently. Above all let is not allow the government to hijack this debate.

What we need in India is more maturity in reporting, tighter editorial control and some introspection by those sections of the media, which have tended to treat their papers as 'products' and brands.

We need better training of journalists and accountability on the part of the reporting staff and a willingness to spend money on basic newsgathering and field experience.

Hopefully, the media will be wise enough to change appropriately before the government sets the terms and boundaries for reportage.

-- Sucheta Dalal