Arshad Zubair was observing the Ramzan roza (fast). He was in charge of catering at Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi. Some MPs from Maharashtra were staying at the government guesthouse, including 11 from the BJP and Shivsena who were very unhappy with the food being served there. They wanted to go public with their complaints; so on 17 July they invited journalists of Maharashtra-based media organizations to the Sadan. When camera crews and correspondents of as many as 11 media organizations reached the Sadan, Shivsena MP Rajan Vichare began thrusting a roti into Zubair’s mouth. Despite having recorded the incident, the media organizations, which shift into the ‘Breaking News’ mode at the drop of a hat, kept this news under wraps for almost a week. For inexplicable reasons, the sensational news that a Shivsena MP force-fed a Muslim observing Roza in front of media persons was canned.
Those who were present at the spot spoke about it to their colleagues in other media organizations. But the news still did not come out. Those privy to the information took the stand that they were not personally present at the spot and had no evidence that such an incident had taken place and hence they could not report it. It was only after the Indian Express carried the news on 23 July that the the channels began running the footage, apparently to save their skin. At that time, Parliament was in session and the news created some commotion there.
Two questions arise here. The first is whether the correspondents of Maharashtra-based publications are comparatively more communal and casteist. And, second, is it possible to suppress the news of any event –howsoever important it may be – if there is an unholy alliance between the four pillars of democracy?
While looking for an answer to the first question, we came across a research paper. Dinesh Murar, a researcher in mass communications, has put in a lot of effort into bringing out the paper. He collected and collated facts relating to the socio-economic, political and religious backgrounds and gender of the journalists working in media organizations of the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra. He has tried to analyse how these factors affect the selection and coverage of news: what is suppressed and/or exaggerated and how. His research covered Hindi newspapers Lokmat Samachar, Dainik Bhaskar, Nav Bharat, Rashtra Prakash and Pratidin; Marathi dailies Lokmat, Sakal, Loksatta, Deshonnati, Punyanagari and Lokshahi Varta; and English newspapers The Indian Express, The Times of India and The Hitavada. The survey revealed that, of the 186 journalists working in these newspapers, 79 per cent were Hindus, 6 per cent Muslims, 12 per cent Buddhists and 3 per cent Jains. There was not a single Christian, Sikh or Parsee journalist. But merely these figures do not explain the religious bias that is reflected in the content of these newspapers. For that, we will have to dig a bit deeper.
The newspaper-wise break-up of the figures is as under: In the Marathi daily Lokmat of the Lokmat group, of the 47 journalists 79 per cent are Hindus, 15 per cent Buddhists and 6 per cent Jains. Thus, there is not a single Muslim, Sikh or Christian journalist in the newspaper. In the Marathi daily Deshonnati, 84 per cent journalists are Hindus, 3 per cent are Muslims and 13 per cent are Buddhists. All journalists of the Marathi daily Loksatta are Hindus. Needless to say, the religious backgrounds of journalists of Marathi newspapers are of immense consequence.
In Lokmat Samachar, the Hindi newspaper of the Lokmat group, 68 per cent of the journalists are Hindus, 20 per cent are Muslims and 12 per cent are Buddhists. In the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, 94 per cent of the journalists are Hindus, 3 per cent Muslims and another 3 per cent Buddhists. The editorial heads of the Vidharbha editions of Lokmat, Deshonnati, Loksatta,t, Lokmat Samachar, Dainik Bhaskar, Nav Bharat and The Hitavada are all Hindus. Seventy-seven per cent of the journalists surveyed conceded that their religion did impact the way they looked at things.
These figures clearly show that the media organizations are dominated by journalists of a particular religion. There is not a single non-Hindu in the editorial team of Loksatta, which describes itself as a ‘powerful representative of the mainstream’ in Maharashtra.
Now, we again come back to the question of why the incident of Zubair being forcibly fed a roti did not become public despite the presence of representatives of five newspapers and six TV channels. Was it not an instance of religious prejudices at play? Religion apart, what stopped the scribes from carrying the story? Didn’t the human angle play in their minds? On the surface, they are all representatives of rival media groups but when it comes to hiding a truth, their unity has to be seen to be believed. And this is just one example. In fact, the term competition also has a different connotation here. There is complete unanimity on a set of political, social and economic beliefs, and these beliefs are above professional rivalry.
As for the second issue, one feels like questioning the very concept that the four pillars of democracy keep a watch over one another and maintain a balance. What if all the four pillars are not sensitive to the democratic ethos and are in cahoots with each other? Since 1990, we have been increasingly witnessing how the four pillars, instead of preserving and strengthening democracy, seem to have started considering democracy as a threat to the new economic order.
The Maharashtra Sadan incident demonstrates how the news of any incident can be suppressed if there is an alliance between the legislature and the media. One can only guess how many incidents and truths were suppressed post liberalization. That is why, after the advent of liberalization, the freedom of the press has become an issue of grave concern. The establishment has successfully managed to incorporate the media into its fold.
And mind you, the Maharashtra Sadan episode is not only an instance of suppressing a piece of news due to religious bias; it points at a wider conspiracy of silence. On 24 July, The Indian Express even wrote that the media persons provoked the MP to thrust the roti into Zubair’s mouth. Thus, the media is not always a silent spectator; at times, it can also be the agent provocateur. This can also been seen as an example of how the media is under pressure to ‘create’ news. Thus, the media no longer only reports news. It also creates and suppresses news. This is a bitter truth we all have to face.
Published in the October 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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