Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
No iron law can be laid down. This would be undesirable and even counter-productive. The present instance of Gujarat itself amply demonstrates the danger of an information vacuum both in time and content as this is likely to be filled by rumours or deliberate disinformation, both of which pose dangers.
The golden rule in all but the most exceptional cases would probably be to portray the facts honestly and completely while avoiding sensation, gory pictures and details, strong adjectives and provocative display. Narratives must be placed in context and balanced over time with other available material. Observance of such a code will clearly be more onerous for television, especially with regard to on-the-spot coverage with little or virtually no time for editing. Yet we do know that the national channels did hold back what they considered might be inappropriate footage.
Pictures can excite emotions and inflame passions. Repeated replay of footage of the burning train and the charred remains of the victims or other scenes of arson and violence is one of the problems of 24-hour news channels which may have to be differently addressed. At the same time, photographs can capture the essence of a tragedy and evoke far more compassion than words. Perhaps the most poignant image from Gujarat was not of the many dead, but of one living Indian, his face contorted with fear. It shamed and shocked ordinary people and, hopefully spurred many of them to think and act positively.
The Editors Guild has initiated debate on existing codes and practices with a view to reviewing these and attempting to develop a new framework for guidance in the future. Other bodies like the Press Institute of India have been engaged in a similar exercise. Television, especially in relation to 24-hour news channels, is still a relatively young medium led by young professionals. Pressures are tremendous and instant decisions have to be taken. Aaj Tak’s Uday Shankar is right in saying that in covering events live, the news story is “built up incrementally” as it happens and gets pieced together, filled in, backgrounded and analysed as events unfold. He told a recent workshop that the channel withheld or heavily edited particularly lurid footage, “war cries” and the destruction of places of worship.
Disagreements about facts and interpretation are best addressed by the right of reply, with appropriate expressions of regret, corrections and clarifications where necessary. The Express, for example, carried a story on April 9 about the distribution of swords and trishuls under the heading “VHP hand in Gujarat’s weapons of violence”. The VHP Joint General Secretaries, Dr Kaushik Mehta and Mr Jaideep Patel sent a denial. This was published by the paper together with a rebuttal by the Express correspondent who basically stood by his story. (IE, April 24, 2002).
As the dust settles, the media, jointly and severally, need to review what happened and what lessons there are for the future. Such introspection should be followed by consultations with political leaders, both government and opposition, administrators, police and security officials, and civic and community leaders. Such interaction would be most useful at both national and state levels. Consideration needs to be given alongside to developing norms for live coverage of riots by television and cable networks, naming of communities and such other matters by appropriate media associations. The Editors Guild of India could take an initiative in the matter.
Many so-called “leaders” of destructive movements and even known criminals have been built-up, even glorified, by the media howsoever inadvertently. There is need for collective reflection on this issue as publicity and image-building makes megalomaniacs and crackpots, often puny figures, appear larger than life and twice as important. Greater circumspection is required in interviewing them and inviting them to chat shows and panel discussions.
The mischievous role certain Gujarati newspapers cannot be glossed over. Some of them have been named for irresponsible and unethical journalism in the past but have regrettably learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Wilful incitement to offence, propagation of hate and fuelling disorder are criminal offences. We accordingly suggest that a high judicial officer be appointed by the Government to examine the writings of those sections of the media that are prima facie in flagrant violation of the law and recommend what action, if any, should be taken against them. It is learnt that the Police Commissioner, Vadodara, did in fact seek penal action against a leading Gujarati daily; but his superiors did nothing. We further suggest that a similar inquiry be made into the handbills, pamphlets and other offensive material put into circulation, not always by unknown persons. The authorship of some of these has not merely been alleged but admitted.
We concur with the NHRC’s recommendation that “provocative statements made by persons to the electronic or print media should be examined and acted upon, and the burden of proof shifted to such persons to explain or contradict their statements”. Charlatans of every brand must know that they cannot misuse the media with impunity and get away with it. None of these matters falls within the purview of the K.P.Shah Commission of Inquiry. They call for separate scrutiny. Official information systems, certainly in Gujarat, need immediate overhaul. Sycophancy and propaganda do not constitute information. They destroy credibility. There is an obligation on the part of the State to enable the media to play its true role. It is in its own highest interest to do so. The media has a constructively adversarial role vis-a-vis the State; but in this information age it is in a sense part of the larger universe of governance.
According to the Indian Express (April 28), the Ministry of External Affair’s portal meadev.nic.in too has indulged in something of a fantasy that does the country little credit. (See Annexure 24). Our broad conclusion is that the national media and sections of the Gujarati media, barring some notable offenders, played an exemplary role in their coverage of Gujarat, despite certain lapses, many of them inadvertent or minor. There were, however, some notable offenders, especially Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar and certain local cable channels. Technology has introduced a new learning curve and there are lessons to be learnt, internalised and developed into codes of best practice. But the notion that the media should shy away from telling the country how it really is must be firmly rejected. The freedom of the media derives from the citizen’s inherent right to expression and information. This freedom carries with it an equally great responsibility that must be honestly and honourably discharged. It is not for nothing that the nation’s motto is “Satyameve Jayate”, Truth Shall Triumph.