Responsible media? Please give us a break.
On 9 July, when local news channel Newslive aired the footage of the beastly assault of a mob on a teenaged girl outside a Guwahati pub, the focus of the topic was not the dignity of women or their safety. It was about drunken girls indulging in unruly behaviour in public.
"Angered by the fracas caused by two inebriated girls on the busy GS Road, people beat up the duo this evening to teach them a lesson. They even went to the extent of tearing the clothes of one of them" -- this is a rough translation of what the Newslive anchor said in Assamese while explaining the footage to the shocked viewers. The camera put excessive focus on rough hands travelling across the clothes of the girl. The channel, according to sources, had disclosed the identity of the girl in violation of journalistic ethics.
A day later, the tune had changed. The channel was talking about safety of women and the insensitivity of the bystanders to a girl being harassed. It went on to claim that it was an act of great bravery from the reporter to shoot the incident. It was because of him that the culprits were identified and caught.
Not many are convinced though. Member National Commission for Women Alka Lamba and Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi among others have questioned the role of the video journalist. In fact as this piece is being written, the chief minister called the role of the journalist 'unethical' for failing to react as a responsible citizen.
But that is not the crux of our story. It is about how rival television channels played games over the hapless victim.
DY365, Newslive's rival, showed the story on similar 'insensitive' lines initially. It soon changed track taking cue from the rival. But there was a hidden script about the way the channels went about settling their rivalry behind their coverage of the incident. For the uninitiated, Newslive is owned by Riniki Bhuyan Sarma, wife of Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Atanu Bhuyan is the editor-in-chief of the channel. Guwahati businessman Sanjeev Jaiswal is the proprietor of DY365. While the first channel is predictably pro-Congress, the other one goes after the ruling party and its government as a matter of policy.
Apparently, Amarjyoti Kalita, who is the main suspect in the incident, is a small-time actor and acted in a crime serial of DY365, ironically in the role of a policeman. Newslive missed no opportunity showing him as the main suspect and repeatedly stressing that he was associated with their rival channel.
In response, DY365 started denouncing the claim in all its bulletins, saying its association with Kalita was brief and only for a role. The channel also started its own sleuthing on Newslive and finally found enough ammunition when Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti president and Team Anna member Akhil Gogoi made the startling claim that the main accused is close to MLA and state Youth Congress president Pijush Hazarika. Akhil also said in a news conference that he possessed video evidence which proved that the Newslive reporter Gauravjyoti Neog incited the shameful incident.
Soon DY365 went to town announcing that the main accused was close to the Youth Congress and how the reporter of the rival channel was involved in the ugly incident. Not expecting this counter attack, Newslive immediately dug out stories about members of Akhil Gogoi's organisation and how they were involved in Maoist activities and rapes. They even referred to a India Today story on 27 August 2011 on how the RTI activist remained silent when police in Assam's Morigaon district paraded a girl naked before the media.
Newslive also collected CCTV footage from Club Mint Bar, where the victim was attending a party before the incident. The footage shows that the girl and her friends were already having a physical fight, allegedly over money. In an attempt to defend their reporter, the channel said the fight simply spilled over to the street as they were thrown out of the bar and their staff had no business of inciting it.
DY365, meanwhile, was taking the matter forward. It showed how many organisations under the leadership of Akhil Gogoi blocking the GS Road on Sunday, demanding the arrest of the reporter concerned, editor-in-chief of Newslive and even the closure of the channel itself. The girl and her trauma were no more the central focus.
The fight between DY365 and Newslive is nothing new. Prior to the last assembly election in 2011, DY365 backed the mercurial Akhil Gogoi who took on the government over river dams and many alleged multi-crore scams in different departments. More than the polls, it was a fight between Himanta Biswa Sarma and Akhil Gogoi, and between Newslive and DY365. Akhil went to the extent of providing details of US-based assets of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and his relatives. But all this did not help DY365 with the Congress achieving a record victory for the the third time.
The events have unfolded in way that should leave all journalists hanging their heads in shame. Did someone say responsible journalism? That’s an oxymoron.