The nation has been disturbed by the violence in Assam between Bodo tribals and Muslims and the subsequent exodus sparked by rumours that people from the North-East living in other parts of India would be attacked. Visuals of packed trains headed to the North-East from cities such as Bangalore and Mumbai were testimony to the fear psychosis spread by various media.
The violence and the exodus can still not be completely explained. What amazes me is that we never seem to learn from earlier incidents—whether it was the 1984 riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Gujarat violence in 2002, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks or the Telangana agitation. The context, the mode and the means used may be different, but they all left behind the same sort of trauma and devastation.
What has changed is the role of technology along with that of the news media, which have evolved from being informers and educators to curators and mediators in the whole drama. The task of media, especially audio-visual media like television and the Internet, in such delicate and sensitive situations, is always catalytic.
A file photo of a family watching television
In this morbid setting, I would like to cite the inspiring example of Telugu news channel HMTV’s Dasha Disha, intended to provide an amicable forum for people agitating for and against a separate state of Telangana.
In Andhra Pradesh, there are more news channels (14) than any other genre of Telugu language television. Three of these channels are owned by prominent local political parties, six are run by local media houses, one by Prasar Bharati and the remaining four are run by national media companies. These vocal channels have been at the forefront of most political discussions and some have even been blamed for fanning the Telangana agitation.
This southern state has been in turmoil over the issue of a separate state of Telangana. While there are political reasons and motivation for this agitation, the related violence and tension has disrupted daily life in this state. Schools, colleges and offices were shut in the capital city Hyderabad and other towns many times during the last year because of the campaign.
Within this milieu, in December 2011, HMTV launched Dasha Disha for public discussions on this sensitive issue. Every Sunday evening, this live programme moderated by the editor and chief of the channel, Ramachandra Murthy, served as a platform for people from all spheres of life—politicians, academics, students, civil society representatives, religious leaders—to voice their opinions on the issue.
Some 50 to 70 people were present in each of these discussions in various district headquarters and cities across different regions of the state. The show also included live phone calls and text messages.
The participation and enthusiasm generated by this programme, spread over seven months, exceeded the expectations of the channel. More importantly, this programme became an important forum for people living in Andhra Pradesh to vent the frustration and anguish they felt. It also helped build the brand and credibility of the news channel, now in its fourth year.
Similar efforts are being currently pursued by Hindi and English channels in their coverage of present crises. But HMTV stands out for its persistent and consistent commitment to the cause. The channel has also taken up issues like the girl child, building toilets in government schools, drinking water, and so on. HMTV is also the first Telugu news channel to have an ombudsman to carry out a critical review of its content and provide a conduit for viewers.
The reason for citing the HMTV example is to recognize achievements of lesser known television channels and, more importantly, to point out the indisputable power of television as a news medium, irrespective of rating points. The information and news media, whether print, television, radio or the Internet, if applied for a purpose, can and does make opinion, change hearts and bridge differences.
Television can also help counter scaremongering and other terror tactics. Given the current landscape, regional media can also serve as a quick and effective counter to social media misinformation and rumour mills in delicate situations like the recent exodus back home of north-eastern people.
It’s now time to harness the power of various media, especially television, for peace and justice for numerous innocent victims. It’s our reaction to such situations and their perpetrators that will ensure such incidents don’t recur.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. She studies and advises on policy issues in media and communication sector.
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