Dialogue  July-September,  2010, Volume 12 No.1

Media in Conflict Situation: Liberals in Illiberal Milieu

Pradip Phanjoubam

The recent one-day cease work strike by the media fraternity in the state of Manipur over intimidation served to a journalist in Churachandpur by an underground organisation was a welcome show of solidarity of a profession which is so prone to similar attacks in this conflict ridden state. Needless to say the show of fraternity by this tribe was effective causing the particular underground organisation to tender an apology, thereby ending the standoff after a single day of newspapers going off the stands. This is all very well, but there is a larger issue involved. Nobody would be so naive to actually believe the vex issue of various armed groups coercing the media would have been resolved conclusively, and that the media in Manipur can actually begin calling itself independent, able to exercising freedom to assess and chronicle events in the way that it thinks are closest to the truth. Let there be no doubt whatsoever, although we wish we are wrong, that the media will no sooner be left again with no other option than to decide to resort to total silence in the face of similar situation. It is quite an irony that an institution which is precisely meant to be empowered by its voice is left to articulate its anguish on an incremental basis by silence. 

    The tragedy of the media and so many other liberal institutions, in places such as Manipur, torn by bitter and deadly conflict is precisely that they are liberal institutions meant to function in a liberal paradigm. When these liberal institutions are pitted against an illiberal environment, trouble can only be expected. One is reminded of the witty and yet incisive remark Sir Vidia S Naipaul, literature Nobel laureate made of Salman Rushdie’s unhappy predicament after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, calling upon the faithful of Islam to kill him. Even as Rushdie was in hiding, Sir Vidia had said in an interview to Outlook magazine that the fatwa was a severe form of literary criticism. When he gave the interview, he had been nominated several times for the Nobel, but had still not received it. There was also a sense at the time that he was not humoured by the general mood that Rushdie may be on way to dethrone him as an Indian expatriate literary achiever. The dark humour of the remark and his undisguised distaste for Rushdie’s works notwithstanding, the commentary on the psychology of an illiberal and authoritarian society was nothing short of remarkable.                            
    Apart from everything else, the liberal civilisation must also be about sublimating conflicting ideas into rational debates. Victory in these debates must also rest with the consensuses that evolve out of them on what the rational answers to the issues contested are. Indeed, democracy has often been described to as rule by debate. It is true that rationality has not always been the winning criteria of political debates in a “democratic polity”, and often issues are simply pushed through by brute force of majority, demonstrating in the process another of what has often been referred to as “democracy deficit”. But this too is an indicator that liberalism has not been fully internalised in those democracies where such recourses are common. Democracy and liberalism, it cannot also be forgotten, demand a respect for dissent. This respect entails the recognition that dissenting voices are not bogus, and could have won the democratic debates had they the right and adequate fuel to convince more on the rationality of their views.       
    We are however not talking about mere democracy deficits here. When the media (as also so many other essentially liberal institutions) are intimidated on the pain of loss of life and limb, to publish or not publish certain material, we are not talking about a deficit but of a total and blatant disregard of democracy. We are talking about an unarguably illiberal environment in which only the use of force is the effective language. When the understanding of civilised conduct and communication is stripped from any given situation, notions such as civilised debate also expectedly perish. In such a circumstance, the pen can no longer be mightier than the sword (gun), and would cease even to be a fair foil for the latter. Literary criticism, as Sir Vidia so insightfully and irreverently said, will no longer be by the pen, but by the gun. But this murder of liberal ethos is not just about those who wield the gun. Remember Manipur is also a land where boycotts are not exercises of individual volition to stay away from activities that he or she is repulsed by. Instead they are diktats, enforced on the pain of losing life and property. In the liberal transformation then, the responsibility must rest with everybody, and no doubt the intellectual community must be the torch bearers.

Axiomatic Journalism

     One of the serious difficulties faced by the media reporting conflict is in deciding what exactly is objective reporting in representing developing, often emergent, situations. One easy way out has been to make the media an open space where all the conflicting parties can say whatever they want and then leave it up to the reading public, presumably intelligent and discerning, to judge for themselves where rationality ends and madness begins (or vice versa) in each of the points of views expressed. There is a problem here too, for the presumption of the readers’ (or audiences’) critical ability to identify not just what is represented in black and white in print, but also what may be broadly described as the third voice of poetry that TS Eliot talked of, is doubtful. The third voice here is taken to mean the unseen, imaginary, narrator who emerges from the dialectic between the poet and the reader, mediating and interpreting what the reader actually reads or hears. The ability to hear this voice brings the reader (or listener) to the position of the poet. It involves him (or her) in the creative process but at the same time, prevents a total emotional involvement by establishing a distance between him and the action. It is a two way process. Good poetry must hence invoke this third voice, much as the reader must also be sensitive enough to hear this voice. The poet and the listener in this sense become part of the same creative process.              
    We are talking of journalism and not poetry here, but all the same the dynamics are not altogether different. This is why we are often left despairing at the absence of any handle for this dialectic in both the media representation of conflict as well as in the readers’ appreciation of what appears in print. The issue however goes beyond this simple equation. This is so because unlike poetry, the medium as well as method of story-telling in the case of the modern media is far more complicated. It is also extremely divergent, especially so between the print and the TV. The classic story telling strategy of the media is for the story teller to develop an axiom or hypothesis on what he would be reporting, and then to collect information that suits the axiom. Often, and quite unethically, he would also resort to selectively quoting people he interviews, distorting in the process the context in which certain things were said, just so that his axiom can be developed. The print media in a way is safer for it is possible to have each speaker express their opinion in full, either in articles or else in the feedback columns in the form of letters to the editor correcting in the process some of the distortions which may have been deemed to have happened. A recent article by human rights lawyer, Nandita Haksar, which was reproduced in the Imphal Free Press and the replies to it, was just an example of this.                   
    This is not possible in the case of the TV. If certain facts or ideas have been misrepresented, there is no easy way this can be corrected. A recent story by CNN-IBN “Your Land, My Land” which so atrociously pitted the Nagas against the Meiteis and had them throw abuses at each other was one such case. I unfortunately and unwittingly became part of it. What had appeared as an interview on the situation in the state was used in bits and totally out of context so as to suit the narrator’s axiom of the Naga-Meitei divide. One question in the interview pertained to whether there were anti-hill government policies (by implication by the Meitei government) to cause the undeniable reality of unequal development between the hills and valley. The answer was this was unlikely, for the Manipur Assembly is one third hill, therefore it would be impossible for it to pass any overtly anti-hill legislation. As for instance Assembly debate records (now available) show that among those who strongly pushed the ADC election decision were some of the Naga MLAs who resigned protesting the ADC election. The interviewer was also told that the disparity is more likely to be because of different attitudes to the modern system. Those who embrace the modern would reap better harvest from the modern system. Because of modern land revenue system in the valley, for instance, the average farmer in the valley would command much more investment liquidity, because his land can be mortgaged or even en-cashed if need be. This is not the case in the hills because of the insistence on the archaic notions of land ownership. This last bit of opinion was used and juxtaposed with an argument on hill-valley land friction the narrator was developing, falsely implicating me as a participant in his debate. It is likely there would be others interviewed in the same story who felt used too. This objection was raised to the story teller and apology duly received, but there were advices from friends that since the perceived wrong was on a public platform it should not end as a private matter, therefore this article.

Media Ethics and Beyond    

     The question has hit those of us reporting in a conflict situation time and again. How objective are journalists in Manipur in the discharge of their duties of news dissemination? More pointedly are journalists here guilty of being influenced by common sentiments and emotions of the prolonged and bitter conflict they report? The rhetorical elements in these questions imply an obvious inference. The questioners believe journalists here at not altogether innocent of not nurturing the sentiments on the ground themselves thereby jaundicing their writings. Perhaps it is not an altogether inaccurate observation, but the question remains, is there anything terribly wrong in the media deciding to allow its own judgements and sensitivities to filter into what it reports? Is the media supposed to be a mirror of society, reporting faithfully only what it sees and hears, or is it obliged to put all these into definite perspectives before presenting them to the readers or audience, as the case may be? Traditionally media was expected to be as close to a faithful mirror as possible. Not anymore. Although in a qualified way, the reporter is allowed to add a little bit of his own perspective to the story.                     
     An example will illustrate this point. If 10 ordinary, innocent villagers are gunned down by armed men, be it government forces or insurgents, a reporter is allowed to, if not expected to, reflect his indignation at the terrible news event. Hence, it would not be just a noncommittal “10 villagers killed by gunmen in a raid in the wee hours” but more like “10 ordinary villagers massacred brutally by gunmen in the wee hours”. The latter reportage is not exactly the job of a faithful mirror, for the few adjectives and adverbs thrown in betray a certain bias of the reporter. But this bias, a lot many will agree today, should be treated as a moral obligation on any human being reporting a pathetic human predicament. Any notion of objectivity which denies this and insists on plain and absolutely detached reportage of these events as they happen, would be nothing less than robotic. In any case, objectivity in journalism is also often reduced to a matter of packaging attributed opinions. The reporter who often is an eye witness is not supposed to express any opinion, but is to have police officers, unnamed official sources, and other “relevant” people like relatives of the victims, or friends of the perpetrators etc comment, and then glue these opinions together to make for what is generally considered “objective” reportage. “Objectivity” thus becomes a matter of “objectivism”, a mechanical ritual rather than a commitment to truth and justice.
     Judgement of the media, and in this case the Manipur media, must be against such a backdrop. Merely the unwillingness to be nothing more than a mirror of events, such as when covering a political speech, cannot be a serious fault. This is especially pertinent in covering conflict and the resultant tales of human sufferings, struggles, defeats, triumphs, joys, sorrows, hopes, despairs etc. How is the media in the state expected to report the Sharmila story? How is it expected to report on the ceaseless cases of fake encounter custodial killings, kidnapping for ransom, destructive and coercive strikes etc? Shouldn’t the media be expected to show moral indignation at the mayhem all around, especially when it is created by those precisely meant to prevent it, or sense a human bondage in covering Sharmila’s struggle? The traditional definition of objectivity may not be wrong, but in such circumstances, it is often grossly inadequate in depicting the truth. For the truth discernable as objective and empirical may be only skin deep, leaving much more hidden below the surface to be uncovered. Moreover, as Tony Harcup pointed out, the objectivity ritual that we are familiar with in journalism in which the reporter is strictly only a detached observer, often end up drawing a moral equivalence between victim and perpetrator, a relativism in which everybody is right in doing what they did from their own perspectives. The reporter from this outlook, is expected to depict these perspectives with equal focus and importance without trying to be judgemental. In other words, to keep up the objectivity standards of journalism, even Hitler must be given an equal opportunity to justify why he had to murder six million Jews. Surely there is something seriously missing in this brand of journalistic objectivity.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati