A new breed of journalists are rising from the Muslim community who feel that unless they sit up and do something, the English media's coverage of geopolitics and terrorism will not improve.
A Pakistani girl was reported to be among the over 30 killed in the bombs blasts in Malegaon in September 2006. Though journalists covering the blasts found that she was not really from across the border and from Islamabad, a “mohalla” or locality in Malegaon, no correction was issued. A search on the internet will still give you results for the death of this mysterious “Pakistani” girl.
It was fitting in more ways than one then that a discussion on media issues and Muslims should have taken place in Malegaon recently. While the city has been portrayed as a den of terror, Imtiyaz Khalil, a documentary producer and former journalist pointed out that, during Independence, ”not a single person from Malegaon left for Pakistan.”
The once bustling powerloom hub is known for its communal violence and, later, bomb blasts, its poor infrastructure and basic amenities, but rarely as the place where fierce freedom fighters raised a flag of revolt against the British in 1921. Jameel Kranti, a local resident, spoke about this aspect of Malegaon and remarked, “We achieved Independence in a sense even before the rest of the country.”
Malegaon is quite proud of this lineage and their educational institutions. Some even feel the Sachar report does not apply to them in many ways. On one issue they seem uniformly unhappy: the question of how Muslims are portrayed in the Indian media has rankled not only the community but also media practitioners for a while, and things heated up quite a bit during the course of the day as speaker after speaker, most of them journalists, pointed to violation of the basic tenets of journalism while reporting on Muslims.
A leading newspaper, which reported the so called Pakistani child’s death, did not bother to correct this impression. The confusion, says Khalil, was that one reporter overheard Islamabad and jumped to the obvious conclusion instead of checking it out.
The question senior Urdu journalists and community leaders asked was why does the media forget the basic principle of confirming facts when it comes to the Muslim community. Moved by the need to give a balance to issues concerning Muslims, A. Aleem Faizee, an electronics engineer turned journalist. launched his website Ummid.com. It is a popular and good resource base. In 2006 after the blasts in Malegaon, Faizee and others decided it was time to set the record straight.
He put in his own money and decided to launch Ummid.com to focus on issues ignored or distorted by the mainstream media. He wanted to write positive stories about the Muslim community in his hometown and this later expanded to a broader focus on the country and the globe. To make it more professional, he now subscribes to a news service and gets a small revenue from advertisements.
The Urdu press had a limited reach, he feels, while his website in English has a wider audience. He juggles various jobs but his website is a labour of love. Faizee is the new breed of journalists from the community who feel that unless they sit up and do something, matters will not improve.
Like him, Shareque Naqshbandi is the editor of Asia Express, a daily newspaper from Aurangabad, one that he started with his own money. Giving voice to Muslims and strengthening media is his main aim since he believes that isolating Muslims is another form of oppression. He aims at making readers empowered and independent, and the new media makes it much easier. Aurangabad and the nearby region is under the media lens because of the number of people who have been arrested with suspected terror links and there is need for unbiased reporting here.
Malegaon has another reason to be concerned about the way it is portrayed in the mainstream media. The perception that it harboured terrorists was strengthened after the arrests in the 2006 blasts case. However, seven of the nine accused in the 2006 bomb blasts case had to be released on bail five years later, after Swami Aseemanand’s confession in November 2010 pointing to rightwing involvement.
Despite that, it finds it difficult to wash off the terror tag. Though things are changing with social networking sites and increasing internet use, Faizee says after the latest Hyderabad blasts, one of the injured was portrayed a suspect and the same trend was seen in the Boston bombing aftermath where everyone was talking of a dark-skinned person.
While Muslims alone are not the victims of a biased media, Faizee feels independent media platforms can put an end to stereotype and prejudice. Others, like Shakeel Rasheed, senior journalist from Urdu Times, spoke of the dangers of a media trial and how the young men accused of being terrorists find it hard to get their lives back on track once they have been acquitted.
He said that during the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, journalists did visit areas dominated by Muslims and they could move around freely but Muslims were advised against going to areas dominated by the Hindu community. The fallout of all this suspicion is that lawyers refuse to handle cases of terror suspects.
Journalists also slammed biased news coverage which relies only on police versions. Does the Indian Mujahideen exist or was it a figment of imagination, asked Khalil Zahid, editor of Akhbar-e-Alam. Mohammed Khursheed Siddiqui, head of the Maharashtra State Urdu Academy, one of the organisers of the meeting, pointed to the dangers of the media bias towards Muslims and said it didn’t augur well for the country as a whole.
Malegaon's residents feel media coverage on their issues or events is neither fair nor based on fact. It has a thriving alternative film industry which was showcased in a popular documentary and there is a series on television as well. The city is trying to shake off its past and the portrayal of its freedom struggle in 1921 as “communal riots” before Independence.
In 1921, after the British flag was removed from the Malegaon fort as an act of defiance, a local government was established. Seven of those who took part in the uprising in 1921 were hanged. There is still no memorial for them. Malegaon gets the spotlight only when there is a riot or a blast. That pretty much sums up its importance in the media. But for Faizee and others, it is important to drive a change in perception and they are making an honest effort.