Monday, April 19, 2010

Looming Violence, Political Threats and a Dispirited Media: On the Media Scene in Kerala

THERE ARE strident calls upon the media to make amends for its omissions and commissions, its pervasive intrusions into the privacy of individuals and the havoc it has wrought in the lives of many unfortunate victims. As a media person, I have always been extremely worried about these tendencies on the part of the media and have expressed my views that the media should introspect, and try be a responsible player in our democratic polity.

But the media, at the same time, cannot remain a toothless entity. It has necessarily to be aggressive, it has to gate-crash into domains that are closed to public review, and bring an objective view of things and developments to the public.

This is a tricky situation. How to strike a fine balance between the concerns of the public's right to information and the individual's right to privacy? Who is a private individual and who is a public person? How to define them and how to strike this nuanced position while reporting on them and their activities? And what constitutes private activity and public activity and where does the line of private activity of a public person and public activity of a private person merges or demarcates?

For almost a quarter century I have agonized over these questions and recently when I saw these clamours for public apology from our media to an American academic for some reports against him, I was thinking about these things again.

Here let me say that I am taking up the case of Dr Richard Franke only as a case study and I do not in anyway wish to express an opinion on his personal or academic activity. I presume that he is a well-meaning academic genuinely interested in Kerala and its people and all the past calumny against him, enumerated in the recent book by Dr Thomas Isaac and Mr N P Chandrasekharan and known to us Malayalis through various news media in the past few years, are simply baseless and the figment of the imagination of a politically motivated media.

Now a few questions arise. I will take up only two right now. First, how far the demands for an apology are legitimate; and two, whether there is any substance to the charge that the reports in media against Dr Franke proved to be an infringement on academic freedom?

This plethora of media campaign against Dr Franke was launched by Patom magazine of Mr Sudheesh, which was later taken up by many other Malayalam newspapers and other publications. The motivated nature of these campaigns was self evident, and most readers remained un-persuaded by most of these charges levelled against Dr Franke, Dr Isaac and a few others. It was a political shadow-boxing within the CPM, to which most of those involved in this battle actually belonged.

That means, the entire episode was part of our contemporary political life in the past few years. All the players were public persons and most of them were in the game for gains of a political nature and are endowed with political power in various ways.

Still, they make a camouflage attack on the media as if there was an infringement on media ethics. Indeed there was twisting of media ethics because the media often failed to check the authority of news items fed to them, but that in no way could be a case for seeking an apology from the media or the launch of an Inquisition from politicians. If anyone had been injured in such a scenario, it was the media itself because they suffered in their credibility, but here again there is no way a media organization can cross check such items fed to them because the Communist parties work behind iron curtains. They will not respond to media inquiries, but they still expect the media to play by rules. That is a very funny idea about democratic ways of functioning, indeed. A similar example could be when someone say, "head I win, tail you lose...!"

The second aspect that needs probing is whether there is any infringement on academic freedom. Dr Franke appears to be a US academic with some long- term connections with Kerala and has done some serious works here. He has been generally enthusiastic about Kerala and its development models though many may have differences with his points of view.

The charge is that his explanations were not given its due and that the campaign had been continued without any hitch even after such an explanation was offered. But why did Dr Franke become an object of attack? Was it because he was from US or was it because he was inadvertently (or perhaps even deliberately) involved in the CPM inner struggles?

The fact of the matter is that Dr Fanke became a target not because he was an academic or he was from US, but because he was seen to be taking a big role behind the curtains; being close to leaders in one faction in CPM and was also seen to be working with them on certain areas of serious concern to Kerala society and politics. When you are in politics, you are bound to receive attacks. Here, you see nothing academic, but everything is political. And in a political society, if anyone wants to exempt themselves from public criticism, why not take a leave and go back to your ivory towers, gentlemen? Why blame media in an injured tone when you confront your own battered pubic image?

When I launched this series of thoughts on the need for critical engagement on the part of media, I was aware of the severe accusations launched by this book.

But now that even a normally sober Sajan joins the brigade of critics, I must respond. I know Sajan himself had some part to play in it because he was among those experts who had read the text before it was published. Hence when I go ahead with my comments I hope Sajan would not get hurt, like the good comrade Ramakumar who finds me weak and unconvincing

I must say I do share a large part of the criticisms raised against the media in the book by Dr Isaac and Chandrasekharan, though I am not convinced about the premises on which they do so.

First, what kind of a book is this? Is it simply a partisan propaganda work by a group of individuals who belong to a political party, or is it a sincere attempt to study the inner workings of the media and its limitations in our society?

It started out as a serious critique and then sadly ends up as a partisan propaganda work which falls flat in convincing the reader of the objectivity of the arguments and the sincerity of their purpose. They highlight issues that are convenient to them and ignore issues which are not suitable to their purpose.

I will take up just one or two examples from the book to argue my points. First, it says that after the days of 'liberation struggle' when media played a critical part in attacking the Communists, it was in 2000s that the media took up such a concerted role. The People's Plan and Lavalin reporting are two major points they use to drive home this argument.

What they conveniently refuse to discuss is the political origins of this media strategy. They are quick to deride the media while they are unwilling to discuss what were the reasons which prompted the CPM to set up a number of investigation commissions in the State and local level in these days? What were the findings of these commissions and what did it tell the party about its inner workings ?

Now the defence will come that these are internal matters of the party. But here they are attacking the media for reporting things based on internal information, and even in the cases where such official commissions were set up why can't the party reveal all that they came by?

That would put a question mark on the sincerity of purpose and the manufactured consent that the media is the villain of the piece. But the media has been mainly a tool in the hands of the two powerful groups in the CPM and both groups had made much use of it. But unfortunately such a complex scenario of cynical use and misuse of media in the internal power struggles and the naked fights for control of the party never gets any mention here.

In the study on People's Plan, they say it was the media which had destroyed such a major effort at decentralization of power. Then they go ahead with the Sudheesh-Patom sob story and says the media parroted all that ultimately killing the programme.

This is less than a half truth. They do not even look at the various steps in the evolution of the People's Plan and where it actually went awry. If they had, they would have seen that it was the inherent weaknesses in the plan implementation and its meagre results compared to the Himalayan hopes it had generated, that was the real problems for its failure.

This dichotomy of what is actually achievable and the insurmountable hopes it could generate, leading to inevitable disillusionment which the writers do accept as a fact, had been pointed out right from the beginning by experienced and sober critics as you can see from the critical articles in the anthology, People's Plan: An Experiment in Decentralised Planning, edited by me and published by Calicut Press Club in 2000 based on a workshop organized by none other than the media people who are now facing the music for its failure! One hoped at least almost one decade on, Dr Isaac and others would show a little more willingness for soul-searching on why it failed instead of the easy of option of media-bashing.

But the gem comes in a comment where they assert, it was a sense of guilty consciousness on the part of media people, most of whom were former SFI cadres, that led the media to this pseudo-left critique of the programme! What a cheek to rubbish people who had been in SFI, who had suffered much and at least some of whom had faced lathis, knives and even bullets, who had taken up work in the media instead of the much coveted full-time political work and tried to do their job of reportong of the goings on in the corridors of power!

I do not know whether this wonderful insight comes from Chomsky original or is a contribution from our neo-Chomskys to the critique of media in 21st century. I must admit, as a former SFI cadre, it left me gasping for breath as I too happen to be a critic of left politics now...!

I was struck by a phrase from Damodar on the contemporary media practice of media criticism familiar to us. He described it as third degree methods of criticism.

Most people would laugh it off as an exaggeration but those who are familiar with the way media-persons are forced to work these days in Kerala would know this aptly describes the reality that confronts us today. There is an atmosphere of latent violence in the every day life of a media-person and he/she has to face crude violence or abuses and threats almost on a day to day basis. Often they erupt into an act of physical violence on the person who represents the media in the field and in most cases he/she works fully aware of the threats to his/her safety. This is no exaggeration: ask any media person- whether male or female- and they would tell you how unsafe the profession has become in the most literate Kerala society. Very few of these incidents, which take the form of direct physical attacks, are reported in the media and most others like threats and abuses are hushed up or silently borne for fear of provoking further attacks or threats. This is a contemporary reality.

Some of these are so ugly and some really comic: When I watched the video of the threat to Vidhu Vincent, a female reporter, from a group of Church believers, I was horrified because the ugliness of mob violence on a feeble female was so evident in all its details. She later left the profession.

When I heard about a friend in Indian Express who was bashed up at a bus stop in Thalassery, I asked him what happened. It was a rally of a big political party there and the buses were all stranded in the roads and he said something to the person next to him about the way they were persecuting the public. Men from the jatha overheard and he was pulled out of the bus and bashed up. He refused to complain because he was afraid next day he would face a fresh bout of violence.

My worst days as a journalist were when I worked with a television channel and I remember with horror the continuous harassment, abuses and threats I faced. They were friendly fire, as they say coming from guys who had an ownership role in it! Some of the people who were abusive were men of some senior positions and one of them today happens to be a member of Parliament.

But the saddest part is not physical violence or continuous threats. It is the loss of means of livelihood which could completely paralyze a person. Most camera-persons are forced to buy their own equipment in small organizations and when they are attacked, the loss is huge. Once when I worked as president of the Kozhikode unit of KUWJ, there was an attack and around a dozen people were injured but when I went to the hospital to see them, the major complaint was not about the injuries or pain, but about the loss of equipment like cameras and lenses and there was no way they could get that back in shape.

Now what I suggest is that an atmosphere of fascist tendencies is fast growing in Kerala and politicians and local mafias are the main culprits. It is a fearsome thing that such attacks are now getting an official stamp as even senior politicians do not care when media people are attacked.


SUNIL KUMAR N.N. said...

I was just wondering if there were no visual and print media development as is at present, what would have been the fate of laymen. Are we supposed to tolerate whatever is imposed on us until we reach fag end of the fourth year term of a Govt. in our State.

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