Monday, April 5, 2010

North East: Fallen off the Media Map?

The Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP, with the financial support of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) organized its 11th Media Dialogue titled North East: Fallen off the Media Map? or, why does the media give so little space to this vast region? The panelists included Shri Subir Bhowmick (BBC Eastern India Correspondent), Mr. Pradip Phanjoubham (Owner Editor, Imphal Free Press), Shri RS Pandey (Former Chief Secretary, Nagaland), Mr. Dibang (Former Managing Director, NDTV India), Mr. Syed Zarir Hussain (Managing Editor, NEWS Live Guwahati), Sanjoy Hazarika (Research Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and a former New York Times correspondent) and Ms. Sevanti Ninan (Editor, The Hoot, a media watch website). The 11th Media Dialogue took place on 31 March, 2010 at the main auditorium, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

Mr. Subir Bhowmick, who was the first speaker told that North East was never there on the media map. More number of people from the North East in the media industry could not ensure better and wider coverage of this region in the media. He informed that stories filed by reporters and journalists on North East are often rejected by editors. He shared his experience about a story related to Rohmaria. Rohmaria is an area that is about 20 km north east of Dibrugarh town on the south bank of river Brahmapurtra in Assam facing bank erosion. Indian Oil Corporation was once stopped from exploiting oil from Rohmaria. People wanted to stop bank erosion and were not ready to accept oil exploration. But when this story was filed, the channel head rejected it. To avoid regional baggage and parochialism, mainstreaming of news is considered as benign which often leads to rejection of stories on North East, said Mr. Bhowmick. The level of understanding and awareness about North East is poor. Only a handful of people like Nandita Haksar who is involved in the human rights movement have taken interest in the North East. There is a disconnect between the mainland civil society and the civil society from the North East. The target rating point (TRP) system prevailing for the television does not allow enough coverage of the North East. Training of stringers employed by the media seldom takes place. However, the BBC gives proper training to stringers. Hostile environment training is given by the BBC but not by the Indian media industry. Training and sensitization of editors too is needed. There is very little protection given to journalists, reporters and stringers. Protection in the form of proper ID card is more important than handsome pay packages. This is because reporters and journalists receive threat calls. They are neither safe from the security forces nor from the insurgent groups. Regional media owners do not invest properly on journalists, reporters and stringers.

Mr. Pradip Phanjoubham informed that plain and simple coverage of the North East is not enough. There are so many things happening in the North East. While discussing the book titled Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History by Cathy Caruth, he explained that central theme of the book was that trauma cannot be articulated. The same can be said about the North East. There has been no genuine effort to understand the psyche of the North Eastern people. The question is: How do we tell about the past without a sense of guilt? The observer and the observed should be the same person to tell the story. There is a difference between melancholy and mourning. The people from North East often indulge in self-pity and melancholy. Newspapers in Manipur are doing worse in terms of revenue earning, according to DAVP. There must be some incentive structure so that the mainstream media take interest in the North East.

Mr. RS Pandey (who is the new interlocutor in the Indo-Naga peace talks) informed that the presence of both national and local media was minimal in Nagaland 30-35 years back. Some media houses survived despite low profit, low circulation and disturbances and tensions. In Delhi and Mumbai, electronic media has cropped up. But this has not happened in the North East. Coverage of the North East in the national media is too poor. Both problems and prospects related to the North Eastern region get little or no attention. There are vast stretches of peace in the North East which often gets under-reported. North East is not just about violence. North East is not a homogenous unit. There are more than 200 ethnic tribes living in the North East. Inadequate and biased reporting are the problems. There are many entries in the Guinness Book of World Records from the North East. Mizoram, a small state in North East India, has literally danced its way into the Guinness Book of World Records when 10,736 dancers performed traditional Mizo bamboo dance 'Cheraw' in Aizawl on 12 March, 2010. There are areas of strengths and weaknesses in the North East, said Mr. Pandey. Infrastructure is too poor in the North East. More incentives should be given to the media for covering North East. It is not just about demand and supply i.e. market forces. More initiatives are needed to be taken. The social and human capital of the region should be unfolded via media.

Mr. Syed Zarir Hussain said that there is nothing called national media. It is actually the mainstream or metropolitan media. Such debates on coverage of the North Eastern region by the media have taken place in the past too. Distance from the capital of India is not a big thing because of the emergence of technology and transport facilities. Babudom has entered into mainstream media. The persons at the helm of affairs have never been to the fields. So they do not know about the pulses of the people. The babu mentality has to be removed. Editors want stories based on violence and militancy. Journalists are doing their best to file good stories. However, the bosses think that the stories are not sexy enough. The television industry is mostly interested in advertisement. Not a single copy of the Hindustan Times goes to the North East. The coverage of the North Eastern region has been relatively better in the Indian Express. Shekhar Gupta came out with good stories. When Sanjoy Hazarika was in the Statesman, more coverage was given to the North East.

Mr. Dibang informed that he was with the Illustrated Weekly for 7 years and then he stayed with the television industry for 14 years. He said that television cannot be a good substitute of newspaper. 30 minutes of news in the television means 2/3rd of a page of a newspaper. For knowing complicated issues, television is not enough. For those who cannot read, TV can be useful. For those who can read, watching television will bring down the ceiling of knowledge exploration. A 600 words story of a newspaper would be brought down to 150 words when it is telecasted. In the case of TV, every second is counted as it is valuable. TV news is based on politics and is celebrity driven. TV channels in the US have become inward looking after the 9/11 incident. TV channels have stopped doing Washington story. American TV now does stories on health and technology. Indian TV operators are more focused on TRPs. All the TV channels get TRP ratings on every Wednesday of a week. There are other details too that are provided. TV is ad and money driven. Weightage for Delhi and Bombay is high vis-à-vis North East. North East is small in terms of political representation in the Indian Parliament. It is a difficult region. Communication is difficult. North Eastern people employed in the media industry may be competent but that may not ensure more coverage of the region.

Mr. Sanjoy Hazarika said that nowadays more people from the North East are employed in the media industry. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of people who died in militancy related incidents is comparable to the number of people who died due to road accident in Assam during the same time span. North East is not just about violence. North East has some of the best stories to offer. Shekhar Gupta broke many good stories from the North East. Although the boat clinics of Brahmaputra river have been widely covered by the newspapers, they were not covered well by the television. Journalists can play a positive role in saving lives of the people during the times of conflicts and tensions.

During the interface between the panelists and the audience, many a good points cropped up, which are as follows:

* Sensitizing about the North East is essential. Editors have myopic vision.
* Internet is good but its reach is limited. What one reads in the Internet may not be authentic.
* There is dearth of people oriented stories that cover issues related to livelihood.
* Has North East fallen off media map or it has fallen off ‘corporate media map’?
* Extra judicial killings are not covered well by the media. Media eat out of the hands of the police. Media is not independent.
* North East should not be considered as too small or too far.
* Political representation of the North East in the Parliament is too small despite its huge size. That is why North East can be termed as small.
* Gruesome killings are sometimes telecasted directly thus breaking the ethical code.
* Development funds are meant for pacifying and not for real development of the people of North East.
* Nation-building process is not complete in the North East.
* Though the NE region lacks industrial development, but illicit trade to neighboring countries is quite common here.

The 11th Media Dialogue of the FMP missed the following points:

* Is it because of the censorship imposed by the government, due to which less attention or coverage is given to the North East region? The discussion neglected this point altogether.
* The focus of the discussion could have been more on how North East was assimilated in the Indian republic after its independence for example the role played by JP Narayan in the dialogue between Nagaland and independent India. This could have helped in understanding the conflict situation in the NE region in a better way.