THE VIRUS AND THE MEDIA!
Opinion

THE VIRUS AND THE MEDIA!

Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

I have never witnessed the type of unprecedented happenings that we have seen during the last about one month or so. Amidst all the disturbing tidings, I wonder whether the media is actually conducting itself in the most appropriate manner or whether there is an overdose of scary stories and also media surveillance by overzealous agencies. However, it seems possible that both scenarios may be possible. What else can you say about a media outlet behaving in a derogatory manner against the first citizen of the country? In a front page story on the nomination of the former Chief Justice of India to the Rajya Sabha, the headline said, “Kovind not Covid did it!” The Press Council of India rightly issued a show cause notice to the English daily for obviously punning the name of the President. The chairman of the Council, Justice Chandramouli Kumar Prasad, charged the Kolkata based “Telegraph” and its editor “for” violation of journalistic norms”.

What is done by the paper is neither satire nor humour but a downright derogatory statement. You don’t need rocket science to discern that the expression used is highly objectionable. Even before the advent of journalism education in our universities, new entrants in the profession were thoroughly briefed or trained in the fundamentals of ethical practices and norms of the profession.

Earlier this month, two Kerala-based Malayalam channels were banned by the government of India for 48 hours. The Indian Express headlines on the front page on 7th March read, ‘’Government bans 2 TV channels: Critical of RSS, siding with one community.” It was also mentioned that the reportage on both these channels were spreading communal disharmony. The channels were banned for 48 hours at 7.30 PM. Media One owned by Jamaat-e-Islami and Asianet News, ‘indirectly’ owned by BJP Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar were for their reporting on the Delhi riots. Interestingly, the ban on Asianet News was lifted at 8 AM and was revoked in the wee hours of the next morning and the ban on Media One was lifted at 9.30 AM. Lifting the ban the Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, speaking to reporters said that “the government restored the channels, as soon as it found out what actually happened”. The Minister of course added that press freedom is essential for a democratic setup. I wouldn’t like to go into the details but it is definitely sagacious on the part of the government to have lifted the ban in a few hours, without waiting for the original 48 hours. It is gratifying that the government is keen on the freedom of the press, which the minister said, is absolutely essential in the democratic setup!

At this point of time when the whole country is reeling under the onslaught of the deadly coronavirus, there is a need for a congenial relationship between the government and the media. I remember how the nation was completely in harmony while facing the 1971 armed conflict with Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh. That does not mean that the government should become completely insulated and the media considered inimical. That also would mean the government being transparent in information dissemination while the media ought to be objective and dispassionate- both the ideas however may sound rather too impractical.

I am writing this after closely watching the media scene today. I am afraid we have almost two different approaches on the part of the media; one almost has an entirely adulatory approach but the other often critical of whatever the government does. I was analyzing how the different media reacted to the rather pontificating tone and tenor of the PM in his nation-wide broadcast last Friday. While some were just praising what the popular leader said in his broadcast, some others chose to ask questions on what he had not done.

It is a media practice to review /analyze any such important broadcasts. As journalists have their right to press freedom, we should also acknowledge the rights of the political leaders. They naturally speak with tremendous care and caution to ward of avoidable controversies. What they say is what they have decided in advance to say and it is incorrect to interfere in or their question intentions.

I have depended mostly on a compilation from The Wire, of some of the editorial comments that appeared the next day by leading English national newspapers following the Prime Minister’s broadcast to the nation on Thursday [19th March]. The PM had asked people to observe what he called a ‘Janata Curfew’ by staying indoors, on Sunday [22nd March] between 7 AM and 9 PM. He then urged people to come to their doors and windows to express appreciation for essential service personnel like medical professionals, para- medics, media people, sanitary workers etc at 5PM on the same day by clapping, ringing bells and sounding metallic plates and vessels. Judging from the overwhelming response by residents of apartment colonies where I stay and the media reports in the night and the following day it was a roaring success. It was at least in these up-market apartments that the response to the PM was absolutely spontaneous. Most television channels showed the optics in great detail and waxed eloquent about the Prime Minister’s appeal and people’s willingness to heed his appeal.

Some of the channels and newspapers appreciated the initiative by the PM and his broadcast. In its editorial the Deccan Herald wrote, “It was brilliant in style using storytelling devices, ensuring that the crux was not missed by the masses he was reaching out to. His observations included ‘Covid is deadly’, ‘we all face high risk’, ‘there are no cures’, ‘and prevent to protect’ and so on. Modi ji also turned to ‘voluntary citizen action to combat the pandemic betting on his personal charisma, a sui generis factor in this political generation, self assured that his invocation of a direct appeal to citizens would yield desired collective positive response’.

The Hindu in a piece titled “The Missing Notes”, wrote that the PM’s speech was timely and communicated a sense of urgency, ‘but beyond that it did not achieve much’. The Hindu also added that, “The states are at the forefront of the fight against the virus, and their capacity is frustratingly uneven across the country….”

Commenting on the appreciation process on Sunday 5 PM, the Telegraph observed that the idea of clapping, “is a Spanish import, but the rest is unique. And uniquely meaningless.” This I would say, unfortunately is the unkindest cut of all. Of course, the Italians too had done it and many people have questioned the veracity of such comments. Incidentally, similar forms of practice have been in vogue in many parts of the country. It has been part of all cultures across the world and is considered an effective tool of nonverbal communication. Take any community in our own country. Bells, sound of conch, exhortations, percussion instruments etc. are generally used to urge people to assemble, or to emphasize salient points and so on. So, it may be considered rather unfair to view as “uniquely meaningless” what was done following the PM’s exhortation to people to clap and show gratitude to these warriors in the nation’s fight against the virus.

Lauding the Prime Ministers initiatives the Indian Express wrote in its Editorial, “The success of Sunday’s Janata Curfew indicates that the people appreciate the gravity of the situation. But their response to P M Modi’s call should be seen as only the first step in the fight against Covid-19”.

I would like to flag an important issue that the Express editorial raised, “Pandemics are cruel, not in terms of the demand they place on the health and immune system of the people and the hardship they create for the families, but also because of the economic-and social-disruptions they cause. There have been reports of migrants whose livelihoods have been hit, heading back to the villages. A large number of them, live in unsanitary conditions and do not always have access to adequate water supplies. Their exodus in overcrowded trains has raised fears of the virus spreading to the country’s rural areas and health experts apprehend community transmission of the infection”. After reading this editorial yesterday, I saw pathetic scenes in the National Capital of hordes of migrant workers coming by trains from Kerala where they do odd jobs, waiting for buses to go to their villages in Uttar Pradesh. There was only a skeleton service and it looked impossible for all of them to go home to their families. Some buses were seen with scores of roof-top travelers, a common practice in parts of North India. These migrant workers seem to have no choice and I wonder how they would have travelled. There were pictures in today’s newspapers of the migrant workers choking transit points in East Delhi. We have seen the government airlifting hundreds of Stranded Indians from different parts of the world. But has anyone helped these poor workers to go home? …..Children of a lesser God?

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Facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author.

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