Utpal Borpujari

November 12, 2013

NEthing, NEwhere….. AAP in Delhi is a reason for Déjà vu


(Published in Eastern Chronicle, http://www.easternchronicle.net, on 27-10-2013)

By Utpal Borpujari

The same day that newspapers carried the information that 11 political parties from Northeast India had joined hands to form a regional grouping called the North-East Regional Political Front at the initiative of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), my neighbourhood in Delhi saw a public meeting by renowned social scientist and now Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav. Yadav was addressing a motley crowd about how the usual political parties like Congress and BJP had failed the people and how AAP was the best and only option to set things right. In fact, the refrain of civil servant-turned-Magsaysay Award-winning social activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP has been that the ‘usual’ political parties are all irreversibly corrupt and only a new idea like AAP can turn the tide in favour of the common man.

Hearing the AAP refrain, and reading about the formation of the North East Progressive Alliance at the same time, gives quite a sense of déjà vu to someone like me, who grew up in Assam during the tumultuous years of early 1980s. If Delhiites are witnessing the birth of a new political party led by men of impeccably clean credentials such as Kejriwal, Yadav and Prashant Bhushan (no matter even if they got separated from others like Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi who did not agree with the idea of converting the now-famous-but-dead people’s movement led by Hazare into a political formation), we, as young, impressionable minds, had seen not only the birth but also an unprecedented straight-from-university-hostels-to-the-State-Assembly march of a young brigade who had captured the imagination of Assam’s people like never before.

AAP is surely not going to achieve success of the scale that the Prafulla Mahanta-Bhrigu Phukan-led AGP had done in 1985. It at best will, going by the present pre-poll surveys, will emerge as a strong third force in Delhi Assembly elections, and play a major spoil sport to both Congress and BJP. Of course, the growth in fortunes of AAP, going by opinion polls held in August and October, if extrapolated, could show that AAP’s rise can even surprise the political pundits by the time the poll results come in on December 8. But then, given that AAP is going to emerge as an important player in its very first election itself, its leaders can have a look at how AGP squandered the immense goodwill of people, and how many of its leaders got mired in one allegation of corruption after another, before it went into oblivion within less than 30 years of its birth.

The formation of AAP is quite similar to that of AGP in that both parties got formed after huge public upheavals (the AASU-Asom Gana Sangram Parishad-led anti-illegal immigration movement was of course a much bigger people’s movement than the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement has been in terms of mass participation, though the latter got immense visibility thanks to the numerous television channels that exist today) over highly-important issues. It is now a historical fact that AGP not only failed in its avowed goal of freeing Assam from illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but its leaders lost all goodwill of the people – one just has to check the election results of recent years, including the recent Guwahati Municipal Corporation elections in which it could win just one ward, to visualize its downward spiral – through their various alleged acts of omissions and commissions. And in recent years, quite a few of its younger leaders have joined other parties, ostensibly disillusioned with the way the party was functioning.

AAP, whether or not it wins the majority in the Delhi elections as it is claiming it will, now has an image that the pre-1985 election AGP had – a pro-people party led by those who had the vision to change the society and whom people believed in. I am pretty sure – you may call it cynical – a few years down the line, once AAP tastes fruits of election results, the party will face the predicament of how its ‘clean’ MLAs (presuming it will win quite a few seats as is being predicted) have turned ‘unclean’, at least some of them. One hopes for the sake of those who will vote for the party’s candidates that it won’t happen, but the history of Indian political firmament shows that there is no party that has not got some of its members embroiled in cases of financial and/or moral corruption. Those who had voted for AGP (I too had as a first-time voter) in 1985 would tell you from experience that the Assamese adage “Lanka loi jieyi jai xiyei Ravan hoi” (whoever goes to Lanka becomes a Ravan) holds quite true when comes to politics. Or else, how would one explain that the student leaders, many of them from poor background, suddenly acquired immense wealth despite having no other sources of income, soon after they became ministers. Of course, now they are reaping as they sowed, having lost all goodwill of the people and ceding much of its space to BJP, which is led in the state by former AGP leader Sarbananda Sonowal.

Of course, given the predictions that AAP will at best emerge as a strong opposition, it faces less of this danger because opposition MLAs have less scope of turning corrupt! And that probably could be the solace for both the party and its supporters. One hopes that having been in the wilderness for so long, AGP’s leadership would turn a new leaf too with the formation of the regional front. It’s now a given fact that in Assam’s politics, AGP is not even among the top three, though political parties with a regional bent of politics are still strongly relevant in many parts of the country. The Northeast needs powerful political parties that can keep the ruling parties on their toes as far as developmental issues are concerned, and that they can do only if they are at least a strong opposition. Perhaps, just like AAP needs to draw a lesson from AGP’s rise and fall, AGP itself needs to do the same at a moment when it’s aspiring to unite the regional forces on Northeast. If you ask me frankly though, I would say fortunes are not going to be on the upswing for AGP unless they first change their fundamental flaws, which need not be elaborated here again. Its regional front leadership notwithstanding. Meanwhile, only time will tell if AAP will be an exception or if it will go the AGP way!

(http://www.easternchronicle.net/index.php?archive=27.10.2013&city=2 – once the page opens, go to Page 7)

October 6, 2013

NEthing, NEwhere…: The ‘Ethics’ or lack of it in Assam’s Electronic Media

Filed under: Assam,Eastern Chronicle,Media,TV — utpalb21 @ 8:52 pm


(Published in Eastern Chronicle, http://www.easternchronicle.net, 06-10-13)

By Utpal Borpujari

Recently, as I was doing my regular nightly surfing of Assamese news channels, one particular “news” item being telecast on one of the popular channels held my attention. It was a video grab of BSF soldiers torturing a Bangladeshi national who was caught for smuggling. The man was being beaten up mercilessly, and all his clothing had gradually been removed. It was clearly a case of gross human rights violation, and exposed how some of our security personnel themselves violate established tenets of law. The description by the anchor said the incident captured on video had happened somewhere along the India-Bangladesh border in the Dhubri sector in Assam.

While what was being shown on TV had obviously happened, the fact is that this ‘expose’ had nothing to do with the international borders in Assam. The fact is, the video was not even a new one. The video had been uploaded in cyberspace way back in January, 2012. In fact, an English news channel headquartered in New Delhi had done an extensive news item, which included reactions from BSF as well as the possible name of the Bangladeshi national, then itself. And the report had mentioned that the incident had happened along the India-Bangladesh border somewhere in Murshidabad district of West Bengal.

I have highlighted this incident to bring up the important issue of the quality of news in the news channels operating in Assam currently. It has been quite a few years now that satellite news channels in Assamese made their appearance in the state. In addition, there are quite a few cable news channels in Assam and other Northeastern states, and another satellite news channel is about to start operations quite soon from Arunachal Pradesh. And as any viewer of these channels would agree, quite a hefty percentage of “news” shown on most of these channels would not qualify as news anywhere else. Take the example of another news item I watched on one channel – it was on the quarrel between families of two brothers about their inherited land. There are umpteen examples of such non-newsy “news” on our channels that get shown every day – be it mobs delivering justice in front of the camera (often I wonder if the camera had been absent, would such incidents even happen!).

Then, there are blatant violations of accepted norms of ethical journalism – faces of minors and women victims of sexual violence are either shown or improperly “masked”/”blurred”, or while that is done, faces of their family members are shown clearly and even interviews taken, thereby making it easy for people in the localities where these incidents take place to identify the victim; many reporters of channels pass opinions on the morals of the alleged law breakers (especially if it has to do with young people) instead of reporting the incidents; and there are several instances of personal attacks as well as attacks on the owners/journalists of rival channels for alleged wrong doings without concrete proof. If there had been a watchdog body for monitoring the content of news channels operating in Assam, I am quite sure they would have had a busy time compiling the transgressions against norms of objective reporting.

But the problem is, while viewers regularly discuss the lack of quality in our news channels (while watching the same news items in what is perhaps an ode to the intrinsic human psychology of drawing pleasure by being a voyeur to troubles involving others), there is no forum where they can place their concerns. Just to give one example, during the time when there was a big hue and cry regarding the role of the electronic media in the G S Road incident, Delhi-based organization North East India Image Managers (NEIim), comprising mainly media and public relations professionals from Northeast India based in Delhi, had written to the Electronic Media Forum of Assam (EMFA), urging it to formulate a code of conduct for the electronic media using the G S Road experience as a learning graph.

Unfortunately, despite several emails to the officer bearers of the organization, there was not even an acknowledgement of the concerns expressed. Of course, EMFA is not a regulatory body but a body formed ostensibly to look after the concerns and welfare of journalists working in the electronic media in Assam. But in the absence of any regulatory body, and being a representative body, it could have and ideally should have taken the lead in ensuring that journalistic ethics and quality of news are maintained in the channels. Its, or any other such organisation’s, role should not end with just instituting annual awards for electronic media journalists.

I feel it is high time that the state’s news channels, or maybe all the news channels operating in Northeast India – be it satellite or cable – get together to form a self-regulatory mechanism through which they can ensure that no channel violates a certain formulated code of ethics and conduct, a la the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) that represents 24 leading private television news and current affairs broadcasters, comprising 51 channels operating out of Delhi and other places (NBA has several members from other parts of India apart from Delhi, but none from the Northeast). Like NBA, this body could be one funded entirely by its members and comprise representatives of all member organisations. It not only acts as the body that interacts with the government on issues concerning the news channel industry but also has a grievance redressal mechanism, through the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, to address concerns of viewers. If one has any issue with any news item telecast on any of the member channels, one can lodge a complaint with NBA and it gets addressed. Basically, NBA acts as a self-regulatory body for the news & current affairs channels.

All our news channels are headed by experienced media personnel, many of them achiever in fields of journalism and literature. Quite a few programmes that I get to watch through the DTH connection at my home in New Delhi are of good quality. A lot of programming is interesting and of the kind that one would not find in news channels from other states. But being a form of media outlet, the electronic media need to interact with its viewers on any concern the latter might have about anything telecast on the channels. If there can be phone-ins for viewers for all kinds of shows, why cannot be there a mechanism through which a viewer can make his or her objections to any content known and get it redressed? The print media has the Press Council of India that covers the whole country, and while it does not have any legal powers, it has acted as a watchdog for print media for a long time now. NBA, while being a privately-propped body unlike PCI’s statutory position, has a limited reach. But for the good of the region’s channels themselves, they should think of creating something like an NBA at the level of the Northeast, or at least Assam to start with.

Having a body like NBA will also serve another purpose – that of creating a systematic mechanism for skill development of electronic media journalists. As of now, much of the transgressions of journalistic ethics by electronic media journalists happen because they – or even many of their bosses – are not trained about what to do and what not to. If there is a self-regulatory body and mechanism, these issues can and will get addressed. In a small state like Assam, or any other state of the Northeast for that matter, which have even lesser population, it is not easy to run a news channel and make it profitable. But that should not serve as an excuse to have below-par content and ill-trained staff. The role of the electronic media in a trouble-torn region like the Northeast is extremely important, and a self-regulatory mechanism that also serves as a viewers’ grievance redressal platform can also help it play that role effectively and positively.

My suggestion: at least develop a Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards as laid down by the NBA, complaints against the violation of which can be made. NBA’s editorial principles, for example, say this: “A news channel must i) Ensure impartiality and objectivity in reporting; ii) Ensure neutrality; iii) Ensure that when reporting on crime, that crime and violence are not glorified; iv) Ensure utmost discretion while reporting on violence and crime against women and children; v) Abhor sex and nudity; vi) Ensure privacy; vii) Ensure that national security is not endangered; viii) Refraining from advocating or encouraging superstition and occultism; and ix) Ensure responsible sting operations.

For starters, the channel owners can at least deliberate on this, and have a look at the website of NBA and find out how such a body can benefit the local electronic media industry in the long run.

(http://www.easternchronicle.net/index.php?city=2&edition=06102013# – once the page opens, please go to page 7)

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