Evolving norms for reporting communal violence

Updated - November 16, 2021 09:12 pm IST

Published - September 23, 2013 01:14 am IST

The spectre of communal violence is both a tragedy and a challenge for good journalism. How to report the violence? How to bring out the sense of pain and loss of innocent men, women and children caught in a web of destructive forces aided and spiralling due to political reasons? How can the media provide both news as well as the healing touch?

In an election year, communal violence takes a diabolic overtone. Vested interests find fault with any reporting that exposes the beneficiaries of the violence. This newspaper’s reportage of the recent communal conflagration in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, warrants a studied analysis. While we have received many letters praising the newspaper, we also got some mails questioning the reporting.

This loss is greater

The burden of the arguments against The Hindu’s coverage is that it focussed on the plight of the Muslims and not on the loss suffered by the Hindus. After carefully examining this newspaper’s multiple editions, I must say that this argument is not fair. It is not right to expect coverage where each community gets equal space. It has to be on the basis of the quantum of loss, despair and suffering. If one community has lost more, it becomes a duty of the media to say so. In my opinion, the reports, op-ed articles, and reflective pieces carried by this newspaper make it clear that the violence has taken a toll across communities. But the loss of life and displacement among the Muslims is higher.

Media ‘convention’

Mature reporting methods on communal violence have evolved over a period of time. The norm in the post-Partition era was not to name any community. The assumption was that such an act adds to the fury and may escalate violence. This assumption took a severe beating following the pogrom of Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. By not naming that the Sikhs were victims, the vitriol against them went unabated.

Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor of this paper, has argued elsewhere how the media “convention” of not identifying communities while covering communal violence works to increase the sense of suspicion and anxiety amongst ordinary citizens not just in riot-affected area but also elsewhere in the country. He wrote: “In a communally polarised situation where rumours circulate widely, people tend to assume that the victims are ‘their own’ and the attackers are ‘the other’. The veneer of anonymity might conceivably serve a positive purpose when the violence is truly a result of sustained, widespread clashes between ‘two communities’ but it has absolutely no utility in situations like Gujarat where one community is targeted in such a well organised manner by political activists with the complicity of the State.”

At a time when over 40,000 people have been displaced, according to official figures, the editor and his team made a crucial editorial judgment to name the community that has been affected the most. Readers are entitled to know the nature of the clashes, and the manner in which one community — the Muslims — has been displaced from village after village. “The onus was on the administration not to let this happen, and on political parties to behave with responsibility instead of inciting tensions — the onus on us is to inform our readers, not hide facts,” replied one of the reporters covering the violence.

I believe a reporter should write about the mood s/he encounters while covering such situations. Muslims had been forced out of homes; had to live in relief camps; they were dependent on others for every meal; their children were out of schools, and they had no desire to return because they were not assured of security — these are facts as seen and narrated by victims, not opinion.

Other reports

Does this mean The Hindu has been one-sided in its reportage? Far from it. The story on the Sangh Parivar was entirely based on what Hindu right activists have told the paper on-the-record. May I urge readers to go through a report in The Hindu on Muslims attacking the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the State administration. It alludes to the fact that Hindus were attacked on September 7 and how Muslims have suffered in its aftermath. In another story on the Prime Minister’s visit, there are multiple Jat voices — with a few saying candidly that the onus is on them to facilitate the Muslims’ return, but this will not happen because the mood in the community will not allow it.

The newspaper would have had to be less than truthful, and would have failed in its duty if it had chosen to hide facts — of Muslim displacement, of the kind of polarisation witnessed in villages, of the propaganda by the Hindu right outfits, of the State administration’s laxity and the SP’s ploys to create insecurity among Muslims. The coverage has tried to tackle each of these themes.


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