How the media ends up creating ‘monsters’

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Ali Khan Mahmudabad, PhD student, CambridgeUniversity

IS INDIA about to create its own Pastor Terry Jones? Jones did not publicly burn the Quran on 9/11 as he had threatened to do, but for more than a month the media gave him the sort of coverage that even film stars rarely get. A pugnacious pastor was given massive airtime at the expense of wars, famines and natural disasters. Indian media, with a legion of 24-hour news channels, is also faced with a similar predicament.

Case in point: a news segment by a popular English news channel dedicated to the impending arrival of filmmaker Vijay Kumar in India. Kumar, who was arrested on his way to addressing a Hindu Mahasabha conference in America, for carrying brass knuckles and ‘jihadi’ literature, claimed that the books were reference material for his lecture. He said that he had been researching jihadi organisations for a few years and was about to make a documentary film. When approached for a sound byte, he said that he sympathised with American problems with ‘jihad’ because “we Hindus are facing the same problem”.

Kumar’s return to Delhi will leave the media here with two options. They can either choose to ignore a person with a clear anti-Islamic agenda or they can give him the same sort of coverage as Terry Jones.

There is no arguing that there is an audience for people like Kumar in India. In fact, the argument can be further stretched that he will now also receive political patronage. It is the responsibility of our media and civil institutions to see to it that a hero is not made out of such a man.

The world is witnessing a wave of anti- Islamism. Tony Blair has been awarded the US Liberty Medal for peace. Recently, he made the statement that “radical Islam is the world’s greatest threat”. He could just as easily have said “terrorism in the name of any religion”. Islam is squarely in people’s gun-sights. Kashmir is in flames and Kashmiris are virtually living under martial law.

It is pertinent to remember that ignoring divisive figures is not suppression of free speech
It is pertinent to remember that ignoring divisive figures is not suppression of free speech

There have been unprecedented levels of demonstrations and violence. The Enemy Property Bill was seen as ‘anti-Muslim’ and was vehemently opposed by many, including Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Communal Violence Bill, termed ‘unacceptable’ by many people, was drafted earlier this year. The BJP has announced that someone openly anti-Muslim like Narendra Modi will campaign in Bihar for the upcoming election. To top it all, Kumar timed his return to India a few days before the court’s verdict on the Babri masjid case!

Today, everyone is tense and worried about the aftermath of the judgement. The situation is precarious and the last thing that we need is a vociferous filmmaker with a sense of entitlement, waxing eloquent about radical Islam and jihad. The mayor of Gainesville, Florida, urged the media not to give Jones any attention but he was ignored. Now, Western newspapers have printed articles wondering “whether the media created this monster”.

In an era of instant celebrityhood, it is important to address fundamental questions about the role of the media in civil society and the need for serious journalism as opposed to sensationalist tabloid news. The world has been bowled over by reality television. This phenomenon is assuming dangerous proportions as it is encroaching on very real issues. It is pertinent to remember that ignoring divisive and radical figures is not a suppression of free speech; rather, it is what common sense dictates. The media should exercise its powers, but it should also remember the corresponding responsibility. The Indian media is cited the world over for being fair and impartial in its coverage. I hope that it lives up to this reputation.

Illustration: Anand Naorem

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