The Big Story: Irresponsible journalism

On January 26, Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj town saw communal clashes break out resulting in the death of one person, leaving scores injured and much property burnt down. As is now common, a section of social media reacted to the clash by trying to fan flames – one user, with more than 35,000 followers on Twitter, even went so far as to call for mass killings.

As troubling as that was, it was even more so to see senior journalists with large news organisations join in the rumour mill. Two journalists with the Hindi television news network Aaj Tak, for example, painted the clash as one where Hindus were attacked by Muslims for trying to hoist the India flag on Republic Day. The channel even ran a show on Saturday with a highly inflammatory, as well as inaccurate, loaded question: “Does hoisting the Indian flag result in a riot?”

This version of events was misleading. The riot was started by a group of men on motorcycles, who attempted to pass through a Muslim neighbourhood in Kasganj. Their way was blocked by a flag-hoisting function for Republic Day in the neighbourhood hosted by the local Muslims – a rather ironic point given the rumours spread on social media. The insistence of the motorcyclists that chairs laid out for the flag-hoisting function be moved to let them pass sparked off the violence.

As if this wasn’t enough, the managing editor of the Mail Today newspaper went so far as to spread the rumour that a man named Rahul Upadhyay had been killed in the riot. As it tuned our, nothing of the sort had happened and Upadhyay was safely at home when the violence broke. He later spoke to the media in order to refute reports of his own murder. The Uttar Pradesh police arrested four people for spreading the rumour.

That a free media is vital to the functioning of a democracy is well known. Its role is even more important in dealing with scarring incidents of violence such as communal riots. Information is the best disinfectant. Indeed, it is because of journalists who went and reported from Kasganj that there is now a fairly cogent picture of what happened. And it is precisely because people look to journalists to present an accurate picture of events that mediapersons have a special responsibility to stick to the truth and not give in to inflammatory rumours.

In this regard, the Indian media often fails in its duty when it comes to communal violence. The role of the Gujarati-language media in the 2002 pogrom is well documented. The role of Hindi media such as Dainik Jagran during the 1991 Babri Masjid riots in Uttar Pradesh was also highly questionable, with the Press Council of India even censuring the newspaper.

This is a problem that it seems, has only worsened with time, as the Kasganj violence shows. That a section of the media is getting caught up in the tide during times of communal violence and is unable to maintain factual accuracy in their reporting and commentary is a troubling sign for Indian democracy.

The Big Scroll

  • Abhishek Dey’s ground report: Despite peace meet in riot-hit Kasganj, Muslim residents say they feel like targets.

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