The media-insurgency symbiosis
11 December 2011patricia mukhim
IN a region that has long been associated with insurgency and defined as the "troubled North-east", it will take some time for us to get used to not being in the news for blood-spattered events. Imagine the media without news of a bomb blast here and a shootout there. We would have to work extra hard to find news worth its while. For 24x7 television news channels, this is a huge challenge. And then you have a full-fledged media war as new entities join the cut-throat world of a media gone completely corporate. Naturally, there has to be a spin to the simplest of stories. If Noam Chomsky speaks of manufacturing consent through the media, here in the region some media houses are trying to create a splash by announcing, on social networking sites, that they are sending their senior journos to interview an intransigent militant leader at his hideout in Myanmar. Since when have mediapersons had to announce their itineraries? Ask me!
Media and insurgency are spoken of in the same breath in the North-east almost as if they are a package. But we forget that one is the actor, the other the reporter/narrator of events. The two cannot possibly be riding the same bandwagon. Unfortunately, that's what has happened in recent times. Indeed, a couple of journalists have lost their lives for moonlighting. No one has to remind us that it's dangerous to be running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, but some enjoy this game while its lasts. Short-term accolades and pushing tsales graphs seem to be more important than the principles of good journalism, which are increasingly trashed by the new breed of media practitioners. No wonder Justice Katju, custodian of the Press Council of India, has taken a swipe at us.
Recent stories doing the rounds about Jibon Moran, the ringleader of the hawkish Ulfa elements under Paresh Baruah, having been arrested in Myanmar; the inability of the Union home ministry to give a clear picture of the factual position, etc, had created quite a stir. Each news channel/newspaper is trying to churn out what could possibly be closest to fact and furthest from fiction. Even high-ranking officials in the Union ministry of external affairs were in "my lips are sealed" mode. Home ministry honchos are vacillating. No one is willing to confirm or deny the story.
Paresh Baruah is a spent force. But a section of the media is interested in portraying a larger than life image of the rebel with a lost cause. One reason why Baruah is no longer a hot button issue is because the people of Assam have reached the compassion fatigue threshold. The Ulfa is no longer the messiah of deliverance that it claimed to be some three decades ago. The outfit has been tried and tested and found hollow. Its leaders have belied the aspirations of the hoi polloi of Assam who today wish to see a new era of development despite the glitches. People are not the dimwits that the media believes them to be. They are tired of being fed news about the lifestyles of insurgent leaders, especially the beleaguered variety.
Large chunks of the Assamese population are spread out across the country and abroad. They are investing valuable intellectual and financial resources in their home state because each one wishes to see a better, more progressive Assam, irrespective of whether they return to resettle here. This same principle is what has revolutionised the economies of Gujarat and Punjab. Non-resident Gujaratis and Punjabis have a close attachment to the country of their birth. Not all of them are content with making it big abroad. The big challenge for most is how to make their homeland a bit better than it was. In fact, many of the younger professionals have returned to invest their expertise back home.
This will soon happen in Assam if it is not already happening. Insurgency can be a dampener for those with such noble ideas. This is where the home crowd can remove the roadblocks of enterprise. One of the reasons why insurgency surged the way it did in the '80s and '90s is because a disillusioned citizenry was fed the lie that guns and an anti-government revolutionary force were the antidote to bad governance, corruption, lack of development, et al. Until they found out to their dismay that they had nurtured a Frankenstein — a killing machine that mowed down even innocent school kids and was audacious enough to not even apologise for that heinous crime, until very recently.
Let's not count the bodies of other residents, many of them defenceless non-Assamese labourers. Only the most cowardly would kill the defenceless to prove a point. In those dark days, the ordinary Assamese provided shelter and psychological support to the Ulfa. Today, all that has changed. And that's why I argue that Paresh Baruah is a spent force.
Insurgency can only survive as long as the cadres enjoy the empathy and sympathy of their own people. Once they cross the line of humanity and decency, they alienate even their most ardent wellwishers.
Today insurgency no longer sells. But the problem is that the media won't let go of it. We continue to give voice to Baruah as if he can make or mar our existence and our collective future from a foreign country. What is appalling is that a journalist who ostensibly went to interview him in the Myanmar jungles announced his expedition on Facebook and Twitter. And then there is a story datelined Moreh, which the journalist apparently did for his paper, telling us which insurgent groups were currently taking shelter in Myanmar as if this was brand new espionage. The attempt to give a dramatic spin to a story that is old hat for Indian intelligence agencies is, to my mind, a desperate attempt at getting attention through the written word.
It is an open secret that some journalists share a symbiotic relationship with leaders of militant outfits. The excuse is that both need to remain afloat. In a market that's increasingly becoming cut-throat, the only way to remain on top is to push through the "breaking news" frontiers. Having reached the top of the heap, the competition is to continue to remain there. For the insurgent leaders, belligerent statements in the media help add to their stature. In a region where conflict and insurgent-related violence has captured eyeballs for decades, the recent change of heart of some of the more obdurate militant outfits has actually reduced the space for the "hard news" template.
Our collective obsession for making news in the so-called "national media" — which veteran journalist DN Bezbaruah debunks as the "metro media" — has given a fillip to militants who blow up human beings and institutions to get media coverage. Would they indulge in such vicious acts if there was no media to report such incidents 24x7? Is it not true then that the media becomes the force multiplier for terrorists? Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta was plagued by similar questions at a seminar in Guwahati. "Why does the national media not report about us?" queried a group of starry-eyed students from a media institute. Gupta's response was a cynical, "Why bother about the national media? If the region is not reported, is that not good news?" What Gupta was hinting at is that the obsession to be reported about should not push the frontiers of journalism on a negative spiral. In other words, we should not manufacture bad news because of the infantile need to be reported about.
What's interesting at the moment is that a mediaperson, in his zest to write splashy headlines, has turned himself into the news.
The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be reached email@example.com
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