Media and the Kashmir Floods

Journalism as theater is what TV news is  ---Thomas Griffith

It is no big secret that commercial considerations as well as various influential groups and powerful lobbies have made deep inroads into the media in India and this is slowly destroying the core values of ethical journalism.  Thus, it is not at all surprising when one sees the media stooping down to the lowest levels merely for increasing its viewership or to please some ‘pressure’ group. However, few would have ever imagined that many reputed TV channels with impressive mottos and bylines declaring their unconditional commitment to high moral values of journalism and non-negotiable principles would have no inhibitions in politicising human tragedy. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened when Kashmir was recently hit by floods and many a renowned TV anchor projecting themselves as the paragons of ethical journalism, were quickly exposed by their biased views. 

At a time when thousands of people had lost everything and were battling for their lives, it was extremely disconcerting to see how many TV show hosts remained completely unfazed by this gargantuan human tragedy. Instead of drawing the attention of their viewers to the extent of this tragedy or even questioning the apathy of the State government and failure of its administrative machinery, they started questioning the silence and inactivity of the separatists and thus unnecessarily brought the contentious Kashmir issue into the debate. Initially, it was a section of the print media that linked the floods to the Kashmir issue by putting across the ridiculous poser whether rescue and relief efforts by the army would be able to “win the heart and minds” of the people of Kashmir?  How could such a completely unrelated and irrational theme catch the fancy of TV channels may defy logic, but in all probability, since it held the promise of abundant scope for debate, viewership hungry TV channels promptly jumped onto this crazy bandwagon!

There is no doubt that in trying to politicise this massive tragedy by pointlessly associating it with the Kashmir issue, the print media showed gross immaturity and sheer insensitivity towards the suffering of the flood victims. At a time when nature’s fury was wrecking death and destruction all around, where was the need to touch upon this touchy issue when survival was foremost in the minds of the people of Kashmir? Yet, while the print media is certainly guilty of rubbing salt on the wounds of a flood affected people, it is the electronic media which has done far greater damage by making this unrelated theme the central topic of endless debates. What made the entire discourse on the Kashmir floods all the more repugnant was not the fact that TV anchors continuously castigated the separatists for doing nothing, but because they  exceeded their brief by making  crass suggestions that the flood hit people should repent and be grateful to the army men for rescuing them. 

When the floods hit Kashmir, the local media houses and journalists were amongst the victims and since TV channels had no ‘local sources’ to get information from ‘ground zero’, they had to rely on journalists hastily flown into Kashmir. While some of these metro based  jurnos lacked adequate knowledge of Kashmir, regrettably, even some of those who claim to be ‘Kashmir experts’ and chose to cover the floods from safe places like the airport and relief camps. Though it may be true that it was difficult to access flood ravaged areas, but by singing praises for the army and denouncing the separatists, these reporters only confirmed the suspicion that their reports were motivated. There is also no doubt that by failing to mention the yeoman service rendered by the local youth in rescuing flood affected people in Kashmir, the media created a an impression that it was intentionally downplaying the stellar role of the locals and this further enraged the public. 

It was therefore not at all surprising that various pieces started appearing in the press highlighting the role of locals in rescue work as the electronic media certainly played a partisan role in their coverage of flood rescue and relief work. Surprisingly, most writers, including many eminent ones, while writing to express their resentment over the way the TV channels were covering the floods, too adopted a similar approach. As a result, their illuminating pieces, which would otherwise have been ample proof that objective and vibrant journalism was alive and kicking in India, have unfortunately acquired a prejudiced complexion. If certain TV personalities have been insensitive, so have been some writers. Ms Vrinda Gopinath, a reputed columnist has taken umbrage to a TV channel’s statement that army men were “putting their lives in danger while trying to rescue and provide relief to the flood-hit residents of Jammu and Kashmir,” as she feels that “When the call comes, it is for the soldier to give the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the nation.” While she may be absolutely right in her assertion, but doesn’t the blunt way of her expression and cold logic share a striking similarity with the insensitive remark made by a Bihar politician that “people join the army to die?”  

If TV channels are guilty of dragging in the totally unrelated Kashmir issue into the flood discourse, then haven’t some writers too done the same by linking the rescue efforts with incongruent issues? By saying that “The relief work is not going to overnight whitewash the abuses even while the security establishment zealously defends sweeping laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which violate fundamental rights including the one to life,” isn’t Sameer Arshad, chief copy editor of The Times of India bringing in an issue that has no correlation with the floods? Similarly, isn’t Chirag Thakkar, a researcher at the Department of Political Science, Delhi University trying to appear as a prophet of doom by being a bit too over dramatic while stating that “The design with which jawans involved in the rescue operation get valourised in this constructed spectacle and the gross silence over darker crimes of security forces that runs beneath this narrative is unsettling?” It is indeed unfortunate that what should have been an intellectual debate on ethical journalism and responsible reporting, has instead turned into a no holds barred street fight! 

The battle lines within the media have thus been drawn on downrightly ridiculous lines with one section wanting the people to express gratitude to the army and the other baying for its blood! This debate has become all the more comical as the army itself has not sought any glory or gratitude. On the contrary, the Srinagar based XV Corps Commander Lt General Subrata Saha has publically lauded the role played by the locals. In an interview given to a local daily, he has emphatically stated that, “Let me tell you one thing that all my people have acknowledged the kind of the assistance that they got from local people particularly youth. Every other boat which we have launched was accompanied by volunteers. Many people have talked to me about this and if it was not for the local youth or local volunteers, we would not have reached to the kind of places we did.” So, when the army is itself not trying to hog all the limelight by omitting reference to the overwhelming public support in its rescue efforts, then why is it being dragged into this debate?

It is difficult to fathom why are reputed journalists who rightfully feel agitated by the prejudiced attitude of TV show hosts, damaging their own credibility by resorting to similar devices and making the army the target of their ire? By undertaking rescue and relief work during the floods, the army has certainly not committed any human right violation or exceeded its mandate. Moreover, the army is neither making a big show of what it has done nor is it demanding gratitude from the people of Kashmir for the same.  So, why are some seasoned columnists taking out their anger against irresponsible TV anchors on the army? Possibly, the observation made by Ajaz Ashraf, a Delhi based journalist that “The Army may not be indulging in PR exercise, but their efforts were being expediently interpreted by analysts and viewers intent on imposing their political ideas upon the tragedy in Kashmir,” holds the clue as it provides a convincing reason as to why the army is being made the whipping boy!

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