Reportage on the Peshawar terror attack is a textbook example of how insular the Indian television media can get.
Posted on newslaundry by Manisha Pande | Dec 19, 2014
Cynical as it may sound, so-called “anniversaries” of even the most heinous of crimes and terror attacks provide much relief in the forever-frantic newsrooms looking to fill the next news slot or page.
Daily news production can be a tricky business since you can rarely plan and news almost always has to be served instantly, as it is unfolds. These anniversaries marking 30 years since a riot or an industrial disaster, six years after a terror attack, two years to a fatal gang-rape allow journalists to plan – prepare packages that harp on homilies, look at what has and has not changed, relive the tragedy to air on channels and paste on front-pages.
1984, 26/11, December 16 are events we are all guilty of recycling for the sake of ease. While it is important to remember, often these anniversaries do little but serve as token coverage on issues and an easy substitute for hard, sustained daily reporting.
It was no surprise, then, that the media that saw little news value in the brutal rape and death of a 17-year-old girl in Ludhiana on December 9, 2014, went to town on December 16 marking two years since a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gang-raped in a moving bus in Delhi in 2012. In a moment of honesty maybe, a reporter with a primetime English news channel remarked that we (the media or perhaps the nation?) are “celebrating” December 16 before correcting her choice of words. Incidentally, the reporter in question was interviewing the parents of the girl whose death had stirred a global movement on violence against women.
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What would have been a news day dedicated to women’s safety (in Delhi or, at best, the metropolis) and debates on sexual violence, however, took a swift turn as news about a terror attack in neighbouring Pakistan began to trickle in. The December 16 rape anniversary, to put it crassly, gave way to developing news of what was turning out to be one of the worst terror attacks in South Asia in recent times.
Seven armed gunmen affiliated to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan had chosen children as their targets in an army school in Peshawar. Given the scale of the massacre – over 100 innocent children had lost their lives – one would have thought that the Indian television media, usually given to jingoism, would arrest the urge to score points just for a day. No such luck. Instead of on-ground reports, nuanced coverage of the terror business and how it plays out in a badly-governed state like Pakistan, prime time anchors quickly made the tragedy that had struck Pakistan about India.
The refrain across channels was a patronising “We Told You So”. Debates were framed thus: Wake Up Call For Pakistan? Has Pakistan Learnt Its Lesson? Much-Needed Reality Check? Will Pak Introspect Now?
Follow-up stories looked at whether Indian schools were safe. Needles to say, reportage on the Peshawar massacre is a textbook example, if one was needed, of how insular and self-absorbed the Indian television media can get.
Times Now, on the evening of the attacks, ran a prime time debate called “Can India afford to wait anymore?”, the description of which on the website begins with an ominous “Yesterday Sydney, today Peshawar…”.
It is an approach that is fraught with dangerous over simplifications and is problematic since there is hardly any connection between what happened in Peshawar and Sydney. Both were terror attacks, but of very different natures. But Times Now and prime time anchor Arnab Goswami thought chiding “Indian intellectuals” and certain political parties for “protecting” people for the sake of “votebanks”, with not-so indirect references to a certain minority community, could somehow stop terror attacks. During the entire length of the show, Goswami resorted to many more generalisations – of human right activists, intellectuals, et al, who, according to him, always come in the line of a “total crackdown on terrorism”.
Headlines Today’s Rahul Kanwal did a special show, which he called the “youth town hall” from a school in Delhi. During the show, as a young student insisted that India should extend an olive branch to Pakistan, Kanwal animatedly interjected him by reminding him that “they [Pakistan] have betrayed us”. One marveled at his need to invoke “betrayals” when the country is coping with one of the worst terror attacks of modern times, particularly so when most students clearly thought otherwise.
On NDTV’s debate “Bad Taliban, Good Hafiz Saeed?” anchor Nidhi Razdan asked her Pakistani guests if this was the 26/11 of Pakistan. Pakistani human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jahangir clearly elaborated that the Pakistani society had paid a heavy price because of flawed policy of the state and that her prime concern was for the families that suffered grave loss. But this wasn’t about Pakistan as much as it was about the questions for which India demands an answer.
After constant heckling, Jahangir reminded Razdan that there is a time for such questions and that the Indian media could do well to follow its prime minister and observe silence as Pakistan copes with tragedy. “There is some sensitivity and you must have that.” Jehangir ended off by saying that it was easy for media people to sit in Delhi and pass comments when several activists like herself have spoken against the Pakistani state’s dual games on terrorism at the risk of their lives.
There is no doubt that the sub-continent needs a more long-term solution to the problem of terrorism and Pakistan has to be more forthcoming in dealing with it together with India, but questions along the lines of “Has Pakistan Learnt Its Lesson” are only insensitive and almost unnecessary as an immediate reaction to what was a tragedy.
One only needs to contrast the India media’s reportage on Peshawar with this report in the BBC, which took the pains to have a scribe on ground, or reports like this to understand the full import of what Jahangir was trying to say.
Which brings us to the initial point of the mainstream media’s tendency to substitute noisy debates and glib reporting for hard-nosed, on-ground journalism.
It is a wonder that the TV media that happily follows Prime Minster Narendra Modi across the globe to gives us minutiae details of what he wore or ate had minimal on-ground reporting on the worst terror attack in recent times that occurred right in the neighbourhood. Rest assured there will be prime time debates on the one-year anniversary of Peshawar attacks: Has Pakistan Learnt Its Lesson?
And who knows, maybe the girl who lost her life to the brutal gang rape that occurred on the night of December 16 may just find some space in the prime time clamour.
(With inputs from Arunabh Saikia)