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Backstory: Only Unbiased Journalism, Not Riot Videos, Can Bring Justice on Delhi’s Violence

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

As the spectre of coronavirus comes to haunt both front page and prime time, the pogrom that just seized Delhi in a vicious, maniacal grip threatens to be consigned to the shadows. There, in the dark, its story will be shaped and reshaped to conform to the official script.

A glimpse of this script has already been provided through the parliamentary perorations of Union home minister Amit Shah (‘Anti-CAA Protests Turned Into Communal Riots,’ Amit Shah Says in Rajya Sabha’, March 12), which came peppered with pieties like “don’t politicise the riots”, “this is not the time to do Hindu-Muslim politics”.

The broad bones of the Narendra Modi government’s story so far goes something like this: First, the violence is a result of a “gehri saazish” (conspiracy of great depth) sustained by finances coming from certain countries – three sources have already been identified.

Two, hate speeches were not, going by their chronology, linked to anything that any BJP politician said – presumably the speeches and slogans raised by Kapil Mishra, Anurag Mathur, Parvesh Verma, Ajay Singh Bisht, or even Shah himself, could not be faulted. It was only after the speeches of Waris Pathan and the likes of Sonia Gandhi, that trouble erupted.

Three, the police behaved in an exemplary manner and brought the situation under control within 36 hours and the fact that it only affected 20 lakh people rather than Delhi’s population of 1.7 crore population is testimony to that.

Four, that the Union home minister worked tirelessly to address the situation, attending review meeting after review meeting, and that it was he who had instructed Ajit Doval to tour the affected region.

Five, the criminal elements will be identified through privately shot videos, face recognition technology and CCTV footage and 700 FIRs have been already filed.

That much of this fails the simplest of fact checks and is blatantly self-serving does not matter. The ruling party’s caravan of trolls, ‘misspokepersons’, IT cell constituents and captured anchors, have already assiduously worked to convert this into the dominant narrative, framing victims as perpetrators and perpetrators as victims.

Access to power has given them a reflected glory and provides them with the carapace of immunity. They have every reason therefore to persist with their journalism. In the long term, however, such reconstituted information in the public domain has serious repercussions for our common democratic secular future against a backdrop of the steady erosion of institutions.

Here I would like to draw attention to a poignant piece written by a former judge of the Patna high court on the state of the judiciary, carried in The Wire (‘India’s Courts Have Forsaken Those Who Are Defenceless Against the Might of the State’, March 12), which expressed helplessness while watching the courts cave in (‘Investigate Hasty Transfer of Justice Muralidhar: International Lawyers’ Body to President Kovind’, March 13).

What should those outside the charmed circle of mediapersons, who daily hoist the bhagwa dhwaj in their newsrooms and studios, do in such circumstances in order to act as “needles” to stitch up the torn fabric of society rather than as “scissors” working to shred it further? Each professional will have to find their own way to respond, given the specific impediments they face from sold-out editors to hectoring managements, but first they need to be convinced about the absolute necessity to counter the larger, systematised news manufacturing. In the immediate term, it impacts the way justice for those crushed by the Delhi pogrom is dispensed, with even the very process of seeking a modicum of fair treatment being seriously compromised. In the longer run, it spells the normalisation of violence against the other, putting in jeopardy any hope of a democratic future.

Material will be cherry picked, primed to appear credible, and edited to tell the government’s story (‘How Rightwing Media Outlets’ Obsession with Shaheen Bagh Led to False Reporting’. March 11). Editing has proved to be a major tool in this arsenal of false-telling. We saw it in the manner Harsh Mander’s speech was used to target him (‘Constitution, Love, Ahimsa’: Harsh Mander’s Speech Which Centre Now Claims ‘Incited Violence’, March 5) and we now see how Umar Khalid is being made the prey (‘Selectively Quoting His Speech, BJP MPs Blame Umar Khalid for Delhi Riots’, March 13).

Every video that tells the government’s story will be given fresh life through news reports and prime time discussion, and there are hundreds out there. This tweet put out by Times Now, claiming it as an “exclusive”, is a good example:

The Times Now tweet was countered by Mohammed Zubair of Alt News:

It does not need an Einstein to guess which of the two interpretations of the same video will gain salience in the public sphere, which now includes the innumerable echo chambers that dot the firmament (Habermas, please note).

What the BJP information machinery has been able to achieve in a major way is to turn concepts, even naked realities, on their head, and do this in a manner to plant confusion in those who wish to counter it, making them feel defensive and forcing them into retreat. As the piece, ‘What ‘Hate Speech’ Really Means, and How the Term Is Being Misused’ (March 8), observes,

“Briefly trapped by the norms of decency and forced to respect the rule of law, the regime has slithered out by unleashing propaganda, accusing the victims and rights activists of being equally responsible for both hate speech and violence: an audacious move that has caught everyone off guard… (it has created) a false equivalence between a slogan like ‘goli maro saalon ko’ and the recitation of poetry, ‘Hum dekhenge’ and calls for ‘aazadi’.

Another commentary in The Wire, ‘The Barbarity of False Equivalence’ (March 8) demands the calling out of this false framing, adding, adding an important caveat:

“To counter false equivalence and to assert what happened in Delhi was an anti-Muslim pogrom, we do not have to take the morally dubious position of denying that there has been the loss of innocent lives among Hindus as well (after all, what can be more heartbreaking than losing a 15-year old boy – the youngest victim of the violence, Nitin Kumar – who was killed while stepping out to buy food), or that the victims are not capable of brutality.”

This attempt to strengthen the alternative voice involves several elements, including the ability to go a longer way to get the stories that are unlikely to figure in the general media space. Why must a The Wire story like ‘Break in India: How Muslims’ Businesses Built Over Years Were Destroyed in a Day’, March 13) fail to make it in the mainstream space?

The writer of the piece, ‘North East Delhi: As Relief Volunteers, Locals Set Example, Govt Remains Conspicuous by its Absence’ (March 13), observes that compassion is not dead. The point, however, is that stories of this kind need reporters to go a longer way. It requires us to “re-experience” the tragic, traumatic experiences of ordinary people caught in the post-pogrom nightmare, and to convey them persuasively to a public which we must presume is utterly indifferent. Our emotions and moral convictions must inform our views and analyses, not in ways that distort but enhance.

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A fact-finding report, ‘Republic in Peril’, on rising incidents of attacks on journalists (‘Media Collective Expresses Concern Over Attacks on Journalists Since Passing of CAA’, March 9) during the violence in Delhi, signals the disturbingly polarised nature of such anti-media violence. Three distinct phases have been plotted, from the attacks on those covering the Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University developments, to 14 cases of assault during the communal clashes in Delhi. Seen this way, the steady escalation of the violence reached a crescendo during the last phase. It noted:

“The third phase is a dark chapter of horror in the history of Freedom of Press in Delhi that reminded many of the Emergency days. Around 18 cases were reported where journalists were not only stopped from coverage, but identified as Hindu/Muslims, shamed publicly and beaten up by the rioting mob. Their cameras and equipment were broken and vehicles burnt by the mob.”

The Press Council of India’s  report (‘What Role Did the Media Play During the Delhi Riots?’, March 13) quoted Times of India photographer, Anindyo Chattopadhyay’s revelations about how male journalists were made to lower their trousers to check religious identity and noted it as a new feature in mob repression of journalists. Apart from the ugly communal edge the attacks acquired, there was specific targeting of certain news gathering institutions like the BBC and NDTV. Especially worrisome was evidence of the police going after journalists, or seeking to abet assaults on them.

This should be seen in tandem with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) new list of press freedom’s worst digital predators in 2020 (‘RSF Places India on List of Press Freedom’s Worst Digital Predators in 2020’, March 12). It took note of “private-sector companies or informal entities” targeting investigative reporters and journalists, through intimidation, harassment, attempting to censor or by deliberated dissemination of fake information.

The CIVICUS Monitor in the latest edition of its ‘Monitor Watch List’, captures the impact that all this is having on human rights in India: “Despite calls by human rights groups for an independent and credible investigation into the police violations, no one has been held to account. Hundreds of people have been detained, including activists and intellectuals” (Global Monitor Adds India to Watchlist for ‘Decline’ in Fundamental Freedoms’, March 13).

None of these reports has drawn national attention to a discernible degree and there is certainly no executive will to bring those who assault mediapersons to justice. In fact, as the RSF report notes,

“India has recently been placed, for the 12th time, on the Committee to Protect Journalists list of countries with worst records of bringing to book the killers of journalists. India was placed on the 13th position (among 13 nations which make up the list of the world’s worst impunity offenders) with 17 unsolved murders that occurred between September 2009 and August 2019.”

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We had several readers writing in on the Delhi violence, some of them pleading for more coverage of their regions. Azka Iqbal, a resident of Ghonda village, writes: “Although our non-Muslim neighbours played a crucial role in our security from goons, kindly come and see how only Muslim shops on the road have been destroyed and looted and a masjid, near Ghonda Chowk, has been burnt and destroyed.”

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Ajith Raman sent in this poem, titled ‘By the Grave’, which was published in LiveWire:

Dig a grave,
Sit on the sides,
Reminisce the lost freedoms,
Keep a pack of cards,
Just in case.

Await.
They will come.
Because you had an opinion.
An opinion that wasn’t theirs.

Dig deep into the past,
If you need to.
To where it all started.
Us becoming us and them,
Cries from forests ignored,
Death of media yet to mourn,
Corporates stifling the environment,
Judiciary leaving for the moon,
Bills making back door entries,
Amendments with motives,
Lynchings normalised,
Opinions gunned,
Sedition being law,
And much more.
Where exactly did it start?
So much has changed.

They couldn’t do it,
Not in a day.
But they did mange to,
Moving things inch by inch,
So you hardly notice.
To get you here,
With your loved ones,
By the grave.

It won’t be long.
The noise of a mob,
Your ears pick from afar.
They hunt in packs,
Always do,
Alone, they don’t exist.

The noise is first,
The flaring lights next.
That should awaken your fear,
Or so, they expect.
They will come within reach,
A million faces, yet so faceless.
They will spare you
From being the first.
Your loved ones will be sent,
On a one way trip,
The fear in you wide awake now,
Or so, they expect.
They will leave you
With a choice,
Walk back with them,
Or meet up with your loved ones.
A choice that is yours to be made,
By the grave.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in