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A skewed definition of balance

By Nityanand Jayaraman

Media coverage generally displays an alarming lack of curiosity in exploring and reporting land/livelihood struggles and campaigns by peasants, fisherfolk and indigenous people. The media never finds out why people choose to fight for their land, what it is that ties them to land and drives them to defend it with their lives. Instead, as was clear in the coverage of the conflict in Singur, the media is likely to over-represent the views of commerce and government

There are very few who accuse the media of being fair.

In my initial years as a freelance journalist, I wrote for a magazine (now dead) called the Far Eastern Economic Review. It was the early-1990s. Enron's Dabhol controversy was raging. Enron contributed its own masala to the intrigue. Consumer fears over escalating electricity tariffs, apprehension over redundancy of public sector utility jobs, and the refusal of farmers to give up their lands -- all these, at odds with a State and corporation that were intent on executing the project, fuelled the controversy. My article interviewing peasants and fisherfolk about why they didn't want to leave their land bounced back from the Review. It wasn't balanced, I was told. Enron officials were not interviewed.

I could have argued that my article that interviewed only farmers and fisherfolk did not need balance. It was the balance. Two articles published within 12 months in the same publication quoted not one of the land losers; only Enron and government sources. From the point of view of the editors at the Review, those stories passed the balancing act. The people who matter had been quoted.

That access to media space is horribly inequitable is evident from the power equations among the line-up of players in any conflict involving large-scale acquisition of land for SEZs, industry, commercial projects and even government schemes. Developers, commercial interests and the state and central government are almost always together on one side -- the land-takers. The land-losers -- peasants, indigenous peoples, sharecroppers and other landless people dependent on the agrarian economy -- occupy the other side, usually at loggerheads with the designs of State and commercial interests over their land and livelihoods.

Left to its natural inclinations, the media is likely to over-represent the views of commerce and government, even portray these favourably.

Generally speaking, the elite bias reflected in the Review's skewed definition of balance is a common disease afflicting media coverage, particularly of land struggles and campaigns by peasants, fisherfolk and indigenous peoples for rights over their livelihoods and natural resources. Numerous factors lend to this bias, including the fact that adivasis, dalits and other backward communities that comprise a bulk of land-losers are underrepresented, if at all, in the media. Dr Ambedkar's observation that "dalits have no press..." is as true today as it was then. What exist as dalit newspapers are not mainstream, and not read by those who ought to be reading them.

Media coverage, again generally speaking, reeks of an alarming lack of curiosity in exploring and reporting on why people choose to fight for their land, on what it is that ties them to land and drives them to defend it with their lives.

Writing for the International Herald Tribune, Anand Giridhardas actually came close to expressing this curiosity. "Whether or not these particular farmers were paid enough for their land, whether or not the protests were politically manufactured, one thing is clear -- it is easier to produce a car for the cost of a Lexus surround-sound stereo system than it is to separate Indians from their land and from the idea of land."

Pretty well summed up, and the farmers will likely agree. This was even reprinted as an excerpt in the Indian Express in a September 2008 article titled 'Singur in Foreign Media'.

But Giridhardas stops short of examining why it is difficult to separate Indians from their land. Instead, he expresses the disappointment of "policymakers" and "business people" over the outcome of farmers' resistance to progress. "In a country where 740 million people -- two-thirds of the population -- live scattered in 660,000 villages, the closing of Tata's (Nano) factory deals a cruel blow to a widespread hope among policymakers and business people: that India will find a peaceful way to wean these millions from their land and move them into productive alternative livelihoods," the IHT article reads.

"Wean these millions?" The millions referred to here are our farmers and peasants.

Commenting on the Tata threat to relocate from Singur, this time in the New York Times, Giridhardas writes: "This country's project to build the world's cheapest car has driven into a quintessentially Indian ditch." This is the lead. The portrayal of peasants not wanting to part with their land, and the consequent political battles as the "quintessential Indian ditch" is worth noting. But what is startling is the manner in which Tata Motors' entirely commercial venture of producing a small car has been portrayed as "this country's" national project.

In both articles, the reporter fails to interview even one of the millions who need to be weaned away from their land. Instead, Suhel Seth, a long-time Tata adviser and friend, and Arundhati Roy are called in to speculate on why it is that the peasant is unwilling to part with his land. While their points of view are incisive and valuable, the land-loser probably has a story to tell too. After all, they number in the millions.

Following the first signs of trouble, less than a week after the Nano plant in Singur was announced in June 2005, news coverage in the English mainstream newspapers in India totally blacked out the farmer's voice. This was before Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamul stepped in. The Hindu wrote three stories with not one quote from any protesting farmer between June 27 and June 30, 2005. The Times of India wrote two pieces quoting only Buddhadev, Jyoti Basu, Biman Bose and some party functionaries. Tata was projected as a victim, and the state as having blundered. The Telegraph dismissed 1,000 villagers, by its own admission, shouting, "We'll give blood not land," as "a small incident". To its credit, though, The Telegraph did quote, and continued to quote, farmers, at least one section of them -- those who were welcoming of the project and had pledged their land voluntarily, expecting jobs and upward mobility.

In contrast, three out of four articles carried in The Statesman not only interviewed the farmers but also treated them sensitively, highlighting the issue of sharecroppers and landless labourers.

It was after this that the Trinamul, whose MLA represents Singur, took up the issue. From here on, till date, even the minimalistic coverage of farmers' voices ended. The media projected the ensuing struggle only as a turf war between two political parties -- Trinamul and CPM -- with poor Ratan Tata caught in the crossfire. Subsequent coverage of the Singur struggle rapidly degenerated into open name-calling and partisan reporting. Only The Statesman ceded that Mamata had latched onto issues that were simmering under the surface among her constituency. Even The Statesman was unable to restrain itself from describing her as having a "proclivity for street theatre".

India Today, no surprises here, resorted to a rant after Ratan Tata's relocation threat: "It happens only in India. One Mamata Banerjee, 40,000 furious protesters and a coalition of unnatural allies shut down a highway, hold a state to ransom, and drive out an iconic investor like Ratan Tata and investments worth Rs 1,500 crore." In one sentence, the protestors are reduced to unreasonable blackmailers, while Ratan Tata is the iconic investor, whatever that means.

From the patronising coverage, where farmers are seen as illiterate and misinformed protestors standing in the way of progress and their own good, to portraying them as unreasonable after the entry of Mamata Banerjee, the media's treatment of Singur progressed from bad to worse. However, it was not the mere perception of misinformed agitation that seems to have rankled the media. Any reader of say The Hindu, The Times of India, Frontline, India Today, The Telegraph, or Indian Express would have reason to believe that the Singur protestors were not just unreasonable, but also violent, and infused with criminal elements.

Frontline describes the struggle committee as "a group of 'reluctant' land-losers, Naxalite elements, Islamic fundamentalists, and other smaller parties" that "carried on a violent agitation in Singur, which culminated in a siege outside the plant site from August 24 to September 8, practically forcing Tata Motors to suspend work for over a month".

The victim of the Singur controversy, going by any reading of popular Indian newspapers, would seem to be Ratan Tata and the state of West Bengal. None of those who lost their lives after and because of Tata's entry into Singur seemed to have evoked the sympathy that media houses poured out when Tata Motors decided to move to Gujarat. It would appear from a reading of Indian newspapers that villagers, unknown, not written about ever, magically transformed overnight into Naxalites, gun- or arms-toting goondas, loaded with foreign contributions and a sinister agenda to derail India's development the minute a big industrial house comes looking for their land. There is no examination of this magical phenomenon. The media projects it as a given.

No portion of the blame for the vitiated atmosphere is ever laid at the doorstep of the industrial house. Corporations such as Tata Motors have actually signed the United Nations Global Compact that requires the company to ensure that there are no human rights violations within their sphere of influence. The more Tata pushed, the more polarised the atmosphere became, and violence and killings followed. Not just in Singur, and not merely with the Tatas. The Tatas in Kalinganagar; POSCO in Jagatsinghpur; Salim Group in Nandigram; Reliance in Haryana, Raigad -- the list is endless.

But the verdict, it seems, is that if we are to have a Nano car, the death of a few unnamed farmers is a small price to pay.

Singur before Tata's entry was largely "peaceful", with a minimal role for the police. Since then, the police have performed at least 14 post-mortems. Four out of five suicides were of unwilling land-losers and sharecroppers; the fifth was a person who had given up his land willingly and got jobs for his three sons. He consumed pesticide after Tata announced its plan to relocate. At least two farmers -- Shankar Das and Kalipada Majha -- died of starvation in what is undisputedly hailed as a food-producing centre in Bengal. Four, including a 15-year-old child who was raped, strangled and burnt for the crime of participating in protests against the factory, were murdered.

Imagine if Ravi Kant, the Tata Motors MD, or even one of the unknown Tata engineers had been killed. Would the media have given it as cursory a mention as the 14 Singur residents who died got?

The Hindu, a respected daily seen to be sympathetic to people's struggles and similar struggles in other states, fared very poorly in disguising its affiliation with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The farmers' side of things is hardly represented. When it is, it is couched in the words of Mamata Banerjee or some other Trinamul spokesperson. To a person reading The Hindu, it would be impossible to figure out that there actually were people -- Mamata's "votebank" if you may -- and other organisations, including trade unions, representing landless workers at the centre of the protest. The fact that these people were the nucleus around which Mamata built her campaign was pushed beyond the reach of people.

Mamata's 25-day fast may have had political motives. But the last I heard, politics was not illegal. The apparent cause for undertaking this long fast was arguably legitimate. But the "indefinite fast" (within cynical quotes) is dismissed as "high-wire theatrics" in an editorial titled 'Singur and Beyond' in The Hindu. All said and done, a 25-day fast cannot be dismissed as theatrics. As a form of satyagraha, the hunger strike allows the protestor to underline the truth by resorting to an extreme measure.

The Singur struggle committee is, in The Hindu's words, a "ragbag of political friends -- ranging from Naxalites through communal elements to free-floating and freelancing NGOs and individuals". And their crime: targeting "the organised Left in a year it has scored major electoral victories". It is unfortunate that a politician is blamed for practising politics. Can a business house be blamed for practising business? If there is a legitimate agitation for rights, political parties not just will, but should, go in its support. The fact that the entry of Mamata drowned out the voice of the community is as much the media's mistake as it is Mamata's.

Anuradha Talwar of the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti (PBKMS) never got around to reading The Hindu. But news does travel. "I have heard that The Hindu is very pro-people. But in covering Singur, they had a very party line, putting out only the CPM's point of view," she said. Indeed, the southern newspaper carried a long opinion by Brinda Karat on Singur that claimed to present the facts, many of which were in dispute. But the courtesy was not extended to anyone from the struggle committee. The PBKMS's rejoinder to Karat's note was never published, not even acknowledged.

The Telegraph went several steps further to present people with a distorted and questionable picture of things. An article dated September 20, 2008, profiles highlights from a report by a "politically neutral and respected research organisation, the Work Foundation". The excerpts not only exonerate the Tatas but portray them as examples of progressive capitalism.

However, the Work Foundation is not politically neutral. It is clearly industry-friendly. What's more, Tata Consultancy Services is a key partner and sponsor of this organisation that published a glowing report on the Tatas. This is revealed on the organisation's website

Only The Statesman got the basic minimum of getting the farmers to speak for themselves right. Usually, in terms of covering conflicts, getting what you want from the horse's mouth is a foolproof strategy.

But with things the way they are, it is virtually impossible to get any sense of reality from the mainstream print media.

Singur, at least, was national news. Even this did not happen until some villagers decided to challenge the Tatas, and more so after thousands of Singur residents laid siege to the block development officer's (BDO's) office in protest against the forcible land acquisition. The involvement of the Tatas, and the treatment meted out to this corporate house, allegedly by a bunch of ill-informed peasants, combined with a liberal dose of violence guaranteed the issue column space. None of the newspapers seemed to have any difficulty in fathoming the national ramifications of the controversy.

Not all politically significant land struggles make it to the national edition. One of the most dramatic land struggles in free India -- the campaign for land rights and radical land reform by dalits and adivasis in Kerala -- has hardly penetrated the radar of national media houses. Since mid-2007, a growing number of dalits living in squalid shanties spread across Kerala's numerous urban centres began migrating to the Chengara estate to squat on an inhospitable hillside within RPG-owned Harrison-Malayalam's rubber plantation in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala.

In less than a year, more than 7,000 families of the poorest of Kerala moved to the hillside to claim their share of land as a right. The choice of the Chengara estate was strategic as the plantation company -- with combined landholdings in excess of 25,000 hectares -- had failed to pay lease rent on their holdings since the mid-1980s. Technically, the estate is an illegitimate landholding. This also highlighted the fact that many companies, including Tata Tea, had allegedly encroached on thousands of hectares of land, while the historically oppressed people had to make do with scraps thrown their way as charity.

Curiously, many national newspapers referred to the dalit-adivasi squatters only as "encroachers" violating the sacred private property rights of the company. Once again, as in Singur, Harrison-Malayalam, with holdings well in excess of all the lands distributed to dalits and adivasis as part of land reforms in Kerala, was portrayed as the victim. The squatters were greedy "landless" out to grab land. 'Now, Landless out to Grab Munnar Land' shouted an Indian Express headline, referring to separate incidents of squatting by dalits and adivasis in various parts of Kerala.

Once again, in keeping with its allegiance to the CPM, The Hindu systematically decontextualises the aspirations of the landless by referring to them only as "encroachers".

It is curious that Chengara never made it to the national news considering that the issue has redefined politics in Kerala, exposing the lie of radical land reforms in this blue-eyed Indian state. But dalits as victims of heinous crimes is what gets it reluctantly-yielded media space. M J Vijayan of Delhi Forum explains that while struggles like Singur may drum up some sympathy owing to the fact that they are defensive struggles against the forced takeover of land, Chengara is seen as an offensive struggle waged by historically marginalised communities. Despite this, support from the public has poured in, from within Kerala, for the Chengara struggle. Media coverage inside Kerala, on the whole, presented a fair account of the struggle and its context, according to Vijayan.

The absence of violence primarily due to the massive numbers of squatters and their innovative satyagraha methods of threatening self-immolation or suicide by hanging if faced with eviction may have dampened the violent instincts of the state. But the lack of bloodshed has also meant that there is nothing newsworthy for the national media to cover. The coverage in Kerala has been good, says Vijayan. But newspapers like The Hindu have covered it very negatively, carrying uncritical statements by the ruling party about the involvement of Naxalites and CIA agents, he adds.

Indeed, the key descriptors deployed to discredit social movements include "Naxalites, anti-development, foreign-funded, outsiders, anti-industry and politically-motivated". Any group of people who are not prepared to yield their land and are hopeful of getting the media to cover them sympathetically must work out ways of fighting their fight without raising any money, be visibly non-violent in deed and thought, periodically get beaten up or, better still, killed, avoid seeking the help of any outsider, spout their anti-Naxal credentials at every opportunity, and eschew politics or politicians.

(Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent journalist and researcher focusing on investigating corporate abuses of the environment and human rights. He is based in Chennai and is associated with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009