The 'invisible' Assam riots: When cameras looked away

One of the more abstruse philosophical musings begins with a simple question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

At its core, the philosphical exploration is centred around the "knowledge of reality", but the question has been invoked in a pure science domain as well. As far back as in 1884, the science magazine Scientific American observed: "Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognised as sound only at our nerve centres. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound."

But far away from the scientific and the philosophical domains, a similar question may be asked in the context of the ongoing Assam  riots: If riots are raging in Assam, and television cameras don't cover them for days, does it mean there were no riots at all?

 The invisible Assam riots: When cameras looked away

There's always someone watching. AP

All over the various social media platforms, the mainstream media - and particularly some of its star TV anchors - are being hectored and vilified for what their critics perceive as inadequate coverage of the Assam riots.

The contrast with 2002, when the same electronic media, then in its infancy and with far fewer technological resources than they can marshal today, had provided saturation coverage of the Gujarat riots, came in for much pointed criticism from right-wing commentators.

The point, which they belaboured to a nicety, was that the electronic media was looking away from the Assam riots because it was unfolding in a Congress-ruled state, and was showing the government up in a bad light. And given the widespread perception that much of the electronic media are politically soft on the Congress, the media stood accused of orchestrating a veritable news blackout of the Assam riots - in contrast to the time when they had indulged in orgiastic coverage of the Gujarat riots.

The few feeble attempts by star anchors to engage with their critics on social media platforms like Twitter only inflamed the anger of the latter even further.

The suggestion that the number of deaths in the two riots - Gujarat 2002 and Assam 2012 - established a hierarchy of news interest received extraordinary pushback, and was subsequently retracted. (Only 40 people have been killed so far in the Assam riots, whereas the toll in Gujarat was in excess of 1,000.)

The reasoning that logistical challenges to getting live cameras in place across the trouble spots in the  northeastern State too was met with cynicism. In the perception of the media critics, the fact that in this day and age of advanced technology and 4G connectivity, television cameras couldn't get to the scene of the crime quickly enough and beam live images was merely an extension of their political bias.

Getting live cameras in place in trouble spot isn't just about getting perverse gratification from "riot porn". By documenting riots as they unfold, electronic media can do an admirable job of documenting crimes in real time, which can help speed up the response from otherwise flat-footed officials. There is something about the live TV camera output in conflict situations that commands instant response in the way that even the most graphic depictions in the print media cannot hope to match.

But 2012 is not 2002: for a start, we have vibrant social media platforms, where anyone with a cellphone can become an eyewitness and a chronicler of  heinous crimes. In Assam, the vacuum in the coverage of the riots by the mainstream media was somewhat compensated by social media users, who put out their accounts of disturbances as they unfolded, in some cases with images captured on their cellphone cameras.

But equally important, the social media networks were put to effective use to convey information on safety shelters and their material needs. Information on helpline numbers to access were also put out with admirable alacrity. It's the kind of situation that typically brings out the best in the electronic media, but this time around they were left flat-footed by the speed of response of the social media activists.

Of course, there was one downside to this: unverified information, and on occasion even malicious rumours, began to circulate unfiltered. For instance, on Wednesday, Twitter was abuzz with reports that the Pakistani flag had been put up in parts of the troubled regions; since they came complete with the screenshot of a news channel's television screen, the reports appeared to carry an element of authenticity. Given that illegal Bangladeshi immigration has in the past proved to be an instrument of Pakistani ISI efforts to push jihadists into India, they also seemed plausible.

The only problem was that the screenshot of the TV screen was from a television report in 2008; it didn't happen now. But the omission of this detail by those who were disseminating the image on Twitter only served to inflame passions in a volatile situation even further. That's the kind of vetting of information that would happen in a mainstream news media platform.

It is in contexts like these that the mainstream electronic media, with all their faults, can serve a useful purpose in putting out credible information in real-time. But in the Assam situation, the slowness of their response - for whatever reason - created an information vacuum that the social media networks, with all their faults, filled to capacity.

It just goes to show that if riots unfold, even in a remote part of India, and the television cameras look away, there are other agents at work that bring out the news in this day and age. Not always flawlessly, and sometimes with their own agenda, but they play a quasi-documentary role.

In other words, if a giant tree falls in the forest, and the mainstream media isn't around to hear it, it still makes a thunderous roar in the age of social media.

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Updated Date: Aug 16, 2012 14:53:29 IST