Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Is the media fuelling vigilantism?

Karanjeet Kaur
New Delhi, February 10, 2010

The attack on disgraced former Haryana DGP, SPS Rathore by a National Institute of Design student Utsav Sharma has triggered a parallel debate on whether the sense of injustice fuelled by the media frenzy on the Ruchika Girhotra case was responsible for this act of vigilantism.

Analysts are raising uncomfortable questions on the way the media laps up police versions of cases, or brands suspects as "terrorists" and political activists as "Maoists", or just goes beyond its brief in sensational cases.

The unease of the critics is best expressed by Kavita Srivastava. The national secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), says while she is happy justice is being seen to be done in the Ruchika case because of interventionist reporting, the media sometimes plays into the hands of the state apparatus.

"Labels such as 'Maoist' or 'Naxalite' are police labels," she said. The state apparatus, she added, did not brook questioning, so whoever took up the issues of poor people was branded a Maoist.

To support her view, she cited the example of Binayak Sen, PUCL's national vice-president and a doctor, who was detained in a Chhattisgarh jail for more than two years. When the media follows the state in labelling a person of Sen's impeccable credentials as Maoist, "the constitutional rights of the person get sacrificed" Srivastav said.

Media scholar Akhila Sivadas, executive director, Centre for Advocacy and Research, made a case for balance. "You can't hold one channel or media platform responsible for the way news is being presented. The interventionism is not at fault, but the media must be able to balance it with information and a diversity of voices," Sivadas said. She added the media must have its checks and balances.

Decision-makers in the media, though, don't buy the 'trial by the media' line floated especially by Rathore's lawyer-wife, Abha Anand. "The coverage has been objective and has ensured that justice is meted out and no one, however powerful, is spared," said G. Krishnan, executive director and CEO, TV Today Network.

"It's becoming fashionable to lampoon the media. It's becoming a trend for politicians who are exposed or accused in criminal cases to engage in media bashing," he said. The coverage of the Ruchika case, according to Krishnan, is an example of how the power of media is key to smooth functioning of a democracy.

Speaking on behalf of CNN-IBN, the channel that has been running a 'Justice for Ruchika' campaign, its managing editor Vinay Tewari agreed with the view that the media's principal responsibility was to report any issue that was in the larger interests of the public.

"If the media is only pursuing its responsibility, and someone decides to take the law into his hands, it can't be held responsible," he said, referring to the attack on Rathore.

Tewari said for every act of 'vigilantism', there are numerous cases where nothing untoward takes place, even though landmark cases are reported ever so often.

"The assailant Utsav Sharma's family has gone on record saying their son was undergoing treatment for depression. It is unfair to correlate the act of one person with a trend. Unfortunately, trend stories are all too common," Tewari said.

Investigative journalist and founding-member of Foundation of Media Professionals Aniruddha Bahal said the media followed a legitimate story about how Rathore misused his office to abet Ruchika's suicide, and later, got away with a light rap after being convicted. "In cases such as Arushi's murder, had the media not focused on it, the Uttar Pradesh Police would have got away with its shoddy probe. The media didn't hint that her parents were complicit in the murder; it was the police that floated the theory," Bahal said.

Of course, Bahal admits that sections of the media engaged in speculative reporting in the case, but he's quick to add a caveat. "We have to look at the larger picture -- the media ensured that the UP Police was held accountable," he said, pointing to the Nithari killings.

Sevanti Ninan of The Hoot, a media news and comment website, also agreed there was no evidence to link vigilantism with the media's reportage of high-profile cases. "It's just an assumption that there was a media overkill in the Ruchika case. We still don't know enough about it," she said.

Ninan added the media's sense of indignation and constant repetition of an issue is a way of whipping up public sentiment. "It also has a class character -- in this case, the victim, the perpetrator and the media, all belong to the upper middle class," she said.

Experts share her view of the media's role in influencing public opinion in cases of derailment of justice. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan said it would be incorrect to hold the media and its exhaustive coverage responsible for the attack. "Ordinary people don't get justice in this country," he said. "On top of it, when you see visuals of a man such as Rathore walking out of the courtroom with a smirk, there's a feeling that powerful people are beyond the pale of justice." The more respected names in the profession, however, beg to differ. Senior journalist Kuldip Nayar cited the example of the recent attacks on north Indians in Mumbai. "The media overplayed it. For garnering TRPs, the media starts hankering after something. We should be careful not to cross the Lakshman Rekha ," he said.

Another senior journalist and director of Manorama School of Communications, Kottayam, Thomas Oommen, also focused on competition. "In any edition of a newspaper," he insisted in an email response, "there will be at least three instances (especially in local and mofussil reports) of uncontestable libel. But to require the person(s) libelled to pursue a court case is to require too much. So, the media has now come to believe it is responsible to no one." Rathore may have survived with light injuries after Monday's attack, but its repercussions will be felt for a longer time by a media still coming to terms with the conflicting demands on its collective conscience.

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