A panel discusses how the media should handle coverage of mass crimes and genocide

‘Memorial to a Genocide’ — a series of seminars dedicated to the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat n Delhi recently gave way to an intense panel debate on the role of media during mass crimes and genocide. Participating in it were former editor-in-chief of Outlook Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of IBN 18 Network Rajdeep Sardesai, academician Dipankar Gupta and investigative journalist from Tehelka, Ashish Khetan.

While Mr. Mehta felt that the media has little power except that of bringing issues in the public domain and mobilising public opinion, Mr. Sardesai strongly argued that in the age of 24x7 news channels, when today’s news is tomorrow’s history, the media cannot treat a genocide as just a news item.Mass crimes cannot be reduced to a zero sum game and genocide should not be forgotten like news of yesterday. Media has to continue telling the story until every victim gets justice because only after justice can we talk about reconciliation, he said.

Mr. Sardesai, who had once argued that if the electronic media would have been present Babri Masjid would not have been demolished, said he was wrong at that time. “If the State is complicit in allowing a mob to do something then there is very little media can do.”

Referring to the media’s role of a watchdog, he modified his comment and argued that had an independent and vibrant media been there at the time of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and Babri Masjid demolition, the justice delivery system and accountability of those responsible would have got a boost.

Mr. Sardesai argued that even after a decade of post-Godhra riots, the discourse on Gujarat has got so polarised that there is hardly any space for real debate. The real challenge for a journalist is how to come out of the polarised debate and become a sane voice which the silent majority understands, he said.

While appreciating the positive role played by the media during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and post-Godhra riots of Gujarat in 2002, Mr. Mehta felt that in the larger scheme of things the media has failed. “People think that the media has a lot of power and it can change things. But the reality is that media has a very limited, very little, virtually no role to play in the larger scheme of things. Yes, we can only prod the judiciary by mobilising public opinion. Seen in this context I think the media failed,”

Mr. Khetan, who exposed the role of the Modi administration in the post-Godhra riots in several stories he wrote, slammed the media, electronic media in particular, for not doing its job in that limited space of bringing facts to the public domain. Whatever limited justice has been delivered to the victims of post-Godhra riots, happened “in spite” of the media. It was made possible due to persistent efforts of a few activists and lawyers who relentlessly followed the case, he said.

Arguing that the media and journalists cannot leave “journalistic standards of proof” and instead go by “the judicial standards of evidence”, Mr. Khetan said journalists did the “biggest injustice” to their profession by not raising “uncomfortable questions” regarding the role of the Modi administration in the post-Godhra riots.

Criticising the “culture of communalisation” which had permeated the media, he questioned the silence of the media on the “truth” of the Godhra train burning and what had transpired in the Modi administration three days after that and just before the beginning of the riots.

Commenting on the pattern followed by the electronic media, Mr Khetan said it doesn’t follow the build up or the aftermath of any riot. For instance, currently there have been innumerable incidents of attacks on minorities by right wing Hindutva groups in the coastal regions of Karnataka, but not even a single report by news channels has highlighted them. “One day news channels will wake up to know that a big communal riot has engulfed the entire region of Karnataka.”

Arguing that it was not up to the victims to “forgive”, Dipankar Gupta on the other hand said it is the job of the media not to let the State “forgive” the perpetrators of any genocide before every single victim doesn’t get justice.

“There is some thing wrong with an administration which sponsors genocide and media should expose them,” he said.

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