When is 'news' better off not reported?

Did it make sense for the Gujarat government to ban use of the image of the burning Sabarmati Express in the media before the Godhra judgment, nine years after the event? Is some limit on press freedom necessary in order to keep the peace at all costs? This article, by Jyoti Punwani, explores this and other dilemmas of mediapersons

Some images remain in the memory. One such image is the burning Sabarmati Express outside Godhra station. It dominated our TV screens for days and became identified with the Godhra incident of 2002. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad made a poster of it and distributed it to its supporters during the massacre of Muslims all over Gujarat, following the train burning.

Nine years later, the chief minister who presided over that massacre ordered that this image, which had reaped such rich dividends then, should not be used by the media. Ironically, the order came at a time when its use would have been really apt -- a Gujarat court was set to deliver its verdict on the train burning. Far from protesting this state censorship, everyone complied without a murmur.

Why did Narendra Modi not want the Hindus in his state, his loyal votebank, to be vividly reminded of the horrifying incident which he himself claimed was the ‘action’ that led to an ‘equal and opposite reaction’, in 2002? News channels reporting on the Godhra judgment, scheduled to be delivered on February 22, 2011, would anyway have rekindled memories; the incident would have been described in some detail; what more would the visual of the burning train have done? Inflame feelings? Why was this undesirable in February 2011, and acceptable in 2002?

Far away from Modi’s darbar, on the ground at Godhra station itself, a few hours before the judgment was to be delivered, a Muslim tea vendor who’d witnessed the original incident was vehement in his assertion that everything was fine in Godhra. Nothing would happen, he said, no matter what the judgment was. But there was one player who could create mischief: the media. TV vans were parked outside the station; cameramen roamed inside. “It is they who provoke people to violence, only so they can make money,” he raged, invoking Allah’s curses on them.

That day in Godhra, schools that had originally decided to stay open in the morning (the judgment was expected at noon) hurriedly sent their students home as rumours spread. The road outside the railway station was deserted. As news of the verdict -- 63 freed, 31 convicted -- began coming in you were thankful for the ban on the burning train visual. Given the peace that prevailed and the cordial relations that now existed between the two communities, who would want that image thrust before their eyes? Certainly not the Muslims who’d lived with the disgrace of having burnt that train for nine years (all the while refusing to acknowledge that some of their own community had done it), with more than a hundred put behind bars for it, many of whose families had become impoverished. As for the Hindus, was there any point rekindling their anger? At least some Hindus in Gujarat -- the families of the 59 who perished in the train -- would definitely not have wanted to see that image.

These may not have been Modi’s calculations. Godhra’s VHP members had been ordered by their own party, the BJP, not to take out any rallies, whether for or against the verdict. Either way, a rally could provoke Muslims; even a stone thrown could lead to a riot and spoil Modi’s record of a curfew-free Gujarat. That was important for the man hailed as the country’s most successful chief minister, but unable to wash off the stain of the 2002 pogrom.

Banning a single evocative image… but on the ground you realised the difference it made. Would the media have abstained from showing the visual if the government hadn’t banned it? Unlikely. The temptation would have been too great. It was only whilst walking the streets of Godhra that you realised the damage it could do, and the need to keep the peace at all costs.

Speaking for myself, such realisation has come after 25 years of reporting communal conflict. In 1984, covering the 10-day-long riots that started in Bhiwandi, and spread to Thane and Mumbai, it seemed important to report not just the actual violence and the partisanship of the police towards Shiv Sainiks but also, immediately after the violence had died down, the plans for ‘revenge’ that both sides made for Bakri Id, due a few days later. When this piece, on which I’d spent a week moving around the city, was censored for being too provocative, it made no sense to me. Recently, a newspaper spiked another piece I wrote on the fallout of Saamna carrying an illustration of the Prophet Mohammed. I wasn’t told why, but I assume the reasoning must have been that few of the paper’s readers read Saamna; was there any point spreading the news?

When is ‘news’ better off not reported?

In a weekly feature on ‘faith’, Saamna narrated a story from the Quran which featured the Prophet and sent out a positive message. The illustration accompanied the piece. This resulted in stone-throwing outside the Saamna office in Nanded. The following day, Saamna carried a front page report saying that violence had broken out in Nanded over an illustration ‘that was not of the Prophet’. This was clearly a face-saving measure to avoid an apology. While Muslim activists in Mumbai were keen on an apology, or at least a ‘we-didn’t-mean-to-hurt-feelings’ statement from Saamna, they were keener that their community not get worked up over the incident. Since most Muslims don’t read Saamna, they appealed to the Urdu press not to publicise the incident. But only two of the four Urdu papers published from Mumbai obliged; the Urdu Times and Sahara went ahead and reported it.

A similar incident took place in 2001. The Bajrang Dal burnt copies of the Quran outside the UN office in Delhi, in response to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. The BJP-led NDA government was at the Centre. The story was blacked out and made out to be a rumour -- until a Reuters picture of the actual burning appeared on the Internet. Violence in interior Maharashtra had already broken out when Mumbai’s Urdu Times carried the news on Page One, on a Friday -- the only paper to do so -- along with an appeal for peace by Muslim leaders. Again, Muslim leaders worked overtime to keep the peace, but failed in SIMI’s stronghold where the organisation pasted posters with a photograph of the Quran being burnt, and the question: ‘What is your responsibility?’. They also took out a rally and stoned buses.

The features editor of Urdu Times, while admitting that putting the news on Page One could have incited trouble, told me that his paper catered to Muslims and hence had to publish news of importance to the community. Besides, the Hyderabad-based Munsiff had already done so. His only argument to which I had no reply was: had some Muslims desecrated a Hindu holy book, would the press have blacked it out? The answer to that is obvious. Even if editors had decided to black it out in the interests of keeping the peace, the BJP and all its affiliates would have gone to town protesting the incident. That itself would have made news.

It’s interesting to see how when the Quran was burnt by the Bajrang Dal, protests by Muslim leaders were muted. It was almost as if the government, led by the communal BJP whose cadres had committed the indefensible offence, and the ‘secular’ opposition were in league to hush up the incident. Such was the gravity of the sacrilege that everyone felt it necessary to deny it, lest Muslims get provoked. In this, the media -- barring a few Urdu papers -- were willing accomplices.

Why?

After the riots of 1992-93, whenever a communally tense situation is expected, Mumbai’s police commissioner sends for Muslim leaders to tell them to keep their community off the streets. The latter assure the commissioner of their fullest cooperation. Shiv Sena leaders are also called to such meetings, but, on occasion, in the presence of the commissioner, these leaders have warned the Muslims present to behave, or else… Muslims have often wondered whether it is only their responsibility to keep the peace.

The media’s black-out of the burning of the Quran seemed to reflect the police’s attitude -- keep Muslims off the streets at all costs. What about Hindus? One can be sure that had Muslims burnt the Gita, the government, even if it had been led by the Congress, would not have enforced any such censorship, and, as mentioned earlier, nor would the media. Blacking out protests by the BJP? Unimaginable. The most rabid of Hindutva leaders are media darlings, never mind what the minorities may feel reading their hate-filled utterances on Page One, prefaced with descriptions such as ‘Supremo’, ‘ageing Tiger’, ‘feisty sanyasin’, ‘firebrand leader’ and ‘patriarch’. For years, journalists troubled by the poison spewed by these leaders have debated how such demagogues should be reported. Ignore them and deprive readers of news? Put them on the inside pages? Tone down their rants? No consensus has been reached because the editors and news editors who decide these matters have never found it worthwhile formulating norms for such coverage; nor is it taught in journalism schools. More importantly, competition between newspapers has ensured that no one misses out on the sensation created by such utterances.

At the height of the Khalistan movement, Bal Thackeray called Mumbai’s Sikh leaders to a press conference and announced an economic boycott of the community unless they wrote to the Akal Takht condemning the acts of Khalistanis in Punjab. Many journalists were sickened at this public humiliation of the Sikhs, but finally the conclusion was -- even if we don’t report it, others will. A collective decision to black out news, it seems, is only taken when journalists themselves are attacked by the police or abused by some politician. Abuse directed at other citizens, in violation of the laws of free speech, is not seen to be worthy of collective boycott. On the contrary. Raj Thackeray, as skilled a hate-monger as his uncle, actually thanked the media on the fourth anniversary of his party, soon after it won 13 Assembly seats in 2009, for having “conveyed to people across the state what we were saying, thereby motivating people to trust us”.

Should the media be proud of this?

Soon after the MNS burst onto Maharashtra’s political scene with its attacks on north Indians in 2008, which left two dead and many innocent north Indians injured, Mumbai’s leading Marathi newspaper Maharashtra Times gave the party chief almost a full page to air his views. His article, titled ‘My Stand, My Fight’, was inflammatory and provocative, aimed at creating hatred among readers against north Indians. What motivates an editor to publish an article like this that justifies violence against innocents? And what is the remedy for such publication?

There was a time when complaints to the Press Council by concerned citizens and a reprimand by the Council were taken seriously. Today, no one even mentions the Press Council. The government has immense powers to curb such writing in newspapers, but rarely uses them. At the height of the Mumbai 1992-93 riots, Saamna was encouraging its “boys” to wipe out “traitors” in the “dharmyudh” that was being fought on the streets, and celebrating the burning of mosques. The Congress government did nothing, until forced to by a petition filed by two citizens. Long after the riots were over, two Bombay High Court judges found nothing objectionable in Bal Thackeray’s writings; besides, they said, “let bygones be bygones”. Now, Bal Thackeray’s nephew, who has followed his uncle’s politics to the letter, is getting the same kid-glove treatment. The Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra uses him to dent the Shiv Sena’s Marathi votebank, and had to be forced by the court to file cases against him. Why would such a government take action against newspapers that publish his venom?

What do north Indians in Maharashtra feel when their tormentor thanks the media for his success? What do Muslims feel when leading English newspapers write lovingly about the ‘Tiger’s roar’? In the late-1980s, Arun Shourie used to be given full pages in The Indian Express to pour scorn on Dr Ambedkar and on the ridiculous fatwas issued by the Deoband and other Islamic institutions. Would an Abu Asim Azmi, Samajwadi Party chief in Maharashtra and a rabble-rouser of the worst kind, get even half a page in any Hindi newspaper to air his views? Would Imam Bukhari? If you give space to demagogues of the majority community and not to those of the minority communities, isn’t that censorship?

Take coverage of Arjun Singh’s announcement on reservations for other backward classes (OBCs) in higher education. While the protests against it surely counted as news, shouldn’t one of them have been censored? Instead it got front page coverage. What was the message sent out by the upper-caste students who swept the streets in protest? That, now that OBCs were going to take away their seats they would have to do the jobs that OBCs were doing (in fact, it is dalits who do this hereditary job)? The press has often reported on the ‘purification rituals’ performed by priests after dalits have tried entering temples. No newspaper ever puts these words in quotes. Should such news be carried at all? If it isn’t, would we realise how prevalent casteism continues to be?

Reporting violence

The other dilemma journalists face is: how far can one go in reporting violence? Readers wrote in to complain when newspapers carried close-ups of Muslim children burnt in the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. In one case, the Press Council felt publication of the photograph (in The Hindustan Times) was okay, as long as the child’s name was not mentioned. Given the tense situation, that could have aroused the anger of the minority community. In another case involving The Telegraph, the Council felt that a caption which said “73-year-old man collects the ashes of the Quran in Ahmedabad (AFP)” could have been worded differently, since, from the photograph it wasn’t obvious that the book was the Quran. The Press Council was obviously concerned about the possibility of provoking Muslims outside Gujarat (The Hindustan Times was then published in Delhi; The Telegraph in Kolkata).

While covering the Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, I wrote a series on the worst riot cases. Most of them had had TADA applied to them; many related to mobs lynching lone Muslims. I made it a point to quote the post-mortem reports to show just how brutally these Muslims had been attacked. A friend complained that it made for gruesome reading. But I had a reason. It was 1997, four years after the riots. The Shiv Sena was in power, doing its best to discredit the Commission, which was then in session, and to propagate its version that the violence in the second phase of the riots (January 1993) was a “spontaneous and natural retaliation” to the violence by Muslims. That lie needed to be shown up by describing just how well-thought-out the violence against Muslims had been.

Would I do the same now, 20 years after the riots? Justice has still not been done; all those lynch mobs have got away. Yet, having seen firsthand the desire of many of Mumbai’s riot victims -- even those who lost husbands and sons -- to get on with their ruined lives, and their unwillingness to participate in long-drawn-out court proceedings, I am not so sure. I have had doors slammed in my face by victims; told not to call any more; and requested by those who I know well not to send journalists to them.

Exposing the state’s complicity in violence against minorities is definitely the media’s job. But in its decisions on complaints against coverage of the violence in Gujarat, the Press Council spoke about the “palliative” role needed to be played by the media. Recent coverage of the Indo-Pak semi-final was anything but palliative. At a press conference on the eve of the match, Pakistani captain Shahid Afridi blamed the Indian media for souring relations between the two countries. He was right. Would it have been considered state censorship had the prime minister told the media to be restrained?

In the run-up to the match, reports and pictures of Muslims praying for India’s success made their expected appearance, as they did before the Kargil war. Muslims remain the only community that displays its patriotism as a community. Should the press publish such pictures on Page One, or at all? Surely we all know what this is about -- thanks to continuous propaganda by the Hindutva parties that Muslims always want Pakistan to win in an Indo-Pak encounter, a section of Muslims has internalised the need to prove their patriotism. If there was no accompanying publicity, would these prayers be held? On the other hand, if the media were to black out such pictures or news, would the message conveyed by such ‘censorship’ be the reverse -- that the press doesn’t want to show that Muslims too are patriotic?

There is also the very deliberate censorship carried out by newspapers while reporting terror. After Mumbai’s train blasts in 2006 only one English newspaper thought fit to report allegations of police torture made by the families of those arrested. The torture stopped only after the PMO intervened. The Urdu press carried the allegations, so most Muslims in Mumbai knew about them. By not carrying them, the English press only added to the alienation already being felt by the Muslims thanks to indiscriminate police raids in Muslim areas.

In the same way, eyewitness accounts of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks which departed from the official narrative were blacked out by the English press. So was a large part of the cross-examination by the lawyer appointed to defend Ajmal Kasab, during the trial of the Pakistani terrorist. The cross-examination raised disturbing questions about the response of the Mumbai police not only to the attack but also to the repeated SOS from its senior officers, one of whom, Hemant Karkare, was killed and another, Sadanand Date, injured. Where terror is concerned, the press seems to think its responsibility lies not to its readers but to the police -- a thoroughly communalised force.

Looking at the world from the viewpoint of the minority or the marginalised isn’t something taught in journalism school. But prolonged interaction with these sections makes you aware of their grievance -- that the mainstream media rarely reflects their concerns, and this often happens through an unconscious process of selecting what’s ‘news’ and censoring what isn’t.

(Jyoti Punwani is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. She has reported extensively on issues related to communalism in India)

Infochange News & Features, July 2011