Ranjona Banerji: So how did our journalists fare with the coverage of the protests?

20 Dec,2019

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Thursday was one of those news days which journalists crave. When things happen outside the ordinary, when you can sniff history in the making. I shall clarify that. It was the sort of day most journalists crave. But those who have given in to cynicism or to craven cowardice or fear, those journalists were counted and found lacking.

 

As largely peaceful protests too place across India, as students and the youth and thousands of citizens poured into the streets to show solidarity against the Narendra Modi-led BJP government’s plans to make India a religious state, how did India’s journalists fare?

 

In Hyderabad where I am now, the Deccan Chronicle leads with a massive photograph of a massive rally in Mumbai, headlined: “Youth protests sweep India: Citizens across India defy bans, face crackdowns to protest against CAA, NRC”.

 

The Times of India on the other hand sadly missed the bus with a massive front page ad across the page, which should have been negotiated off (yes, it can be done, have done it myself) and then diluted the impact of the huge country-wide uprising with this lead headline, “Mobs clash with cops in Mangaluru, 2 dead”.

 

Everything is a judgment call but one would have expected TOI to have a better one. How about the internet shutdown across “digital India”? Or the peaceful protests across the country? Or one of the hundreds of creative posters carried by protestors?

 

In today’s times, anything which dilutes criticism of the powers-that-be imply that you do not have the courage to take them on. Journalists with the Times of India like Aarti Tikoo Singh and with CNN News18 like Marya Shakil showed themselves up on Twitter, one calling for police action against journalists, the other turning a blind eye to police action and concentrating outrage on one burnt bus.

 

And obviously, Times Now concentrated on the protests in Uttar Pradesh where Section 144 had been imposed across the whole state (democracy, anyone) and there were clashes between protestors and the police. Anything to support the BJP, whether at the Centre or the states, eh?

 

Most other news channels however concentrated on protests in the rest of India and on the digital crackdown. NDTV was, unsurprisingly, the most professional. I feel bad as I write this because I know that all news channels in India are full of keen, professional journalists. It is at the top that the rot has set in. This remains Indian journalism’s biggest challenge. That editors are unable to rise above themselves and their own petty fears and allegiances. This sickness has spread across the media, and as public anger and protests grow, journalists will be shown up more often.

 

Almost no one openly questioned the Prime Minister or Home Minister, which is our other big failure as journalists. Who else was responsible for the chaos and anger? Who pushed through the CAA and promised the NRC without explaining, without assessing, without going through the process? Who used excessive force on students at Jamia Milia University and Aligarh Muslim University? Who has tried to turn India into a Hindu supremacist state?

 

The international media, in spite of the dramas of Brexit and the impeachment of US president Donald Trump, had its eye on India and almost every major newspaper carried the protests in India, many on their front pages. News is news, even if some Indian media houses would like to pretend otherwise.

 

You could compare the news coverage given to these impromptu student and citizens’ protests and to those organised by India Against Corruption movement in 2011, when several news channels decided they were covering India’s freedom struggle. The protests over the past week were larger and more spontaneous. There is no hidden hand or agenda except to keep India’s secular nature intact. But the government in power was different. Therein lies journalism’s greatest tragedy.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

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