The mainstream media’s deafening silence on recent communal incidents has led to a steady erosion of its credibility.
In such a situation, more credence is given to unsubstantiated news and rumours masquerading as news. And this can be dangerous for a state like West Bengal.
For many years now, there has been an unofficial gag order on the media in Bengal. No reports that can show the minority (read: Muslim) community in a poor light can be published or broadcast. The obeisant media has been happily following this gag order very religiously.
But then, gone are those days when news of events and developments could be suppressed by issuing diktats to a largely subservient (mainstream) media. In today’s age, even if the mainstream media chooses to black out some event, people get to know about it through the social media.
And this is exactly what has been happening in West Bengal where communal riots have been erupting with frightening regularity, thanks to Mamata Banerjee’s shameless policy of minority appeasement (as has been discussed in this article). However, the silence of the mainstream media has also started backfiring.
For instance, the media blackout of last week’s attacks by hardline Muslims on Hindus spawned wild rumours that ignited passions in many other places across the state. That could have triggered widespread violence leading to full-fledged riots engulfing many areas of Bengal. Banerjee has only her good fortune to thank that this did not happen.
But she wasn’t so fortunate two months ago when news of an attack by Muslims on a Goddess Durga idol immersion procession at a village in Malda district, followed by attacks on homes and shops of Hindus, was suppressed. No newspaper or periodical or TV channel carried reports of the attacks. But social media stepped into the void and within a couple of hours, news and video clips of the attack spread throughout the state.
Rumours of Muslims having attacked Durga Puja mandaps and defiling idols of the Goddess, as well as attacks on temples, also spread and gained intensity with increasing circulation. In the absence of any news of the attack being disseminated by the mainstream media and TV news channels, people believed in the wild and baseless rumours. Hindus were incensed, and this led to communal riots in as many as 12 other places in different parts of the state.
The mainstream media brought more shame upon itself when, over the next few days, it started publishing and broadcasting news of Muslims being attacked. The original attack by Muslims on the immersion procession was not even mentioned in passing and the fact that the communal riots that followed from that was a reaction by angry Hindus was suppressed in a sinister fashion. This unfortunate bias of the media, both local and national, has not been lost on the Hindus of Bengal.
In perhaps no other state does the media keep silent or desist from disseminating news of such violence. In no other part of the country does the media follow an unofficial diktat of a state government. And in no other state does the government maintain radio silence and pretend that attacks by one community on another and the resultant clashes have not happened at all.
It is not just news of attacks on Hindus by Muslims and the consequent communal clashes that follow that is blacked out by the media. It has become the standard practice for the media to black out news of any demonstrations, rallies or protests by Muslim hardliners in Bengal on the grounds that such coverage could lead to communal tension and, more importantly, would show the Muslim community in a poor light.
For instance, in early August last year, tens of thousands of slogan-shouting Muslim hardliners laid siege to central Kolkata and brought normal life to a complete standstill, thus inconveniencing lakhs of people. The reason: police had detained three Muslim clerics from Bihar who were transporting a group of 62 children from Bihar to Maharashtra via Kolkata. The police suspected the clerics of trafficking the kids since they could not produce any documents and could not provide satisfactory answers.
Within an hour of the clerics’ detention, mobs from madrassas blocked roads, attacked vehicles and even the police, who fled. Buses carrying schoolchildren and ambulances carrying critically ill patients were not allowed to move by the militant mobs demanding the immediate release of the clerics. It was only after the police bowed down to their demands that the mobs retreated from the streets late in the evening. But no TV news channel reported this, and not a line was mentioned in any newspaper the next morning (barring two national dailies). Incidentally, the two dailies were warned by state officials that they would be hauled up if they report such events in future. Needless to say, they fell in line.
In March 2013, hardline Islamists brought out a huge rally that brought Kolkata to its knees. They were protesting against the crackdown on Jamaat-e-Islami radicals and Islamic terrorists in Bangladesh. Prominent Muslim clerics called for the death of Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina at the rally. But no TV channel or newspaper thought it fit to report this.
In early 2014, Muslim hardliners vented their anger on the streets of Kolkata after a Bengali TV channel planned to air a serial based on a book written by Taslima Nasreen. The West Bangal government leaned hard on the private channel to shelve the serial, fearing that not giving in to the Islamists’ demands would cost Banerjee her precious Muslim vote bank. Once again, not a word on this appeared in the mainstream media.
News of violent protests by Muslims have been blacked out in the past as well. This media bias actually dates back to the days of the Left Front regime in the state. The Left, too, followed a policy of minority appeasement and in pursuance of it, forced media houses to desist from reporting anything that would show Muslims in a poor light.
For instance, in late 2007, hardline Islamists rioted in Kolkata against the presence of Taslima Nasreen in the city. They attacked media persons, police and torched two offices of the CPI-M, which was in power at that time. Even though curfew was imposed in parts of the city and the army, which had to be called out, staged flag marches, news of violence was completely blacked out. TV channels and newspapers carried asinine reports saying Muslims only protested while staying silent on the violence they unleashed. A panicky Left Front government bundled Nasreen out of the state.
Banerjee has, of course, gone one up on the Left in minority appeasement and in ensuring that the media plays by her rules. No TV channel or newspaper will, for instance, even mildly criticise clerics, who issue fatwas or speak like medieval bigots. Take the case of prominent cleric Maulana Nurur Rehman Barkati, the Shahi Imam of Kolkata’s Tipu Sultan Masjid. Barkati is infamous for issuing fatwas, the latest one (issued two weeks ago) asking for BJP state president Dilip Ghosh to be stoned and driven out of West Bengal for the latter’s diatribe against Banerjee. Barkati also issued a fatwa calling for the death of Nasreen and announcing a reward of Rs 1.5 lakh for her head.
Barkati has held rallies supporting notorious terror-monger Zakir Naik and led funeral prayers in absentia for Osama bin Laden and Mumbai blast accused Tiger Memon. He has also been a vocal advocate of triple talaq and has issued many other fatwas, besides making atrocious statements that reveal his regressive and medieval mindset. But no TV channel or newspaper will criticise him because that’ll anger Banerjee, who needs Barkati to hold on to her Muslim vote bank and thus accords him VIP status, including use of a red-beacon SUV. Had the leader of any other religious community been so obnoxious and violated the law of the land, the media would have gone ballistic. But Islamist hardliners in Bengal who spew venom and issue death threats are above the law and the mainstream media avoids criticising them even mildly.
The mainstream media’s deafening silence on recent communal incidents, combined with its deeply ingrained habit of looking the other way when Islamists break the law, has led to a steady erosion of its credibility. The majority community in Bengal no longer trust the mainstream media to be fair and objective when it comes to the minority community. In such a situation, more credence is given to unsubstantiated news and rumours masquerading as news. And this can be dangerous for a state like Bengal where the situation is turning increasingly volatile.