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Journalists Charged with Murder

06 Aug

I’ve always felt that Indian news channels were a bit rubbish but I didn’t know they were positively lethal. However, according to the police in Varanasi, that’s precisely what they are.

According to them, reporters from two news stations, IBN7 and Star News, along with local politicians incited a group of disabled roadside vendors to consume poison to protest the district administration’s decision to clear the sidewalks they’d claimed for themselves. Two arrests have already been made and an FIR lodged against the two television channels.

On the face of it, this is a situation right out of a bad Hindi movie (Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, anyone? Who knew that piece of crap was actually an exercise in prophecy?). But it’s not to be imagined that the police would be allowed to walk away with their side of the story unchallenged when the mainstream media has been placed in the dock.

And thus, NDTV reports that the public suicide attempt was hardly a bolt from the blue and local news reports had stated quite clearly, at least two days in advance, that a group of men were planning to commit suicide. The police had ample time to intervene. The scene as they describe it, sounds quite macabre:

“[T]he municipal officer said even if you poison yourself we will not listen and we will demolish your shops. So to give them a little happiness we consumed poison,” said Tribhuvan.
A few hours after he said this, Tribhuvan died in hospital.

[snip]

In a public display on Tuesday in the crowded heart of the city, the 12 men poisoned themselves by swallowing pesticide.
Everyone watched and no one intervened. Half an hour later the police arrived.
On Wednesday morning, five men died and seven are struggling for their lives.

The city administration would beg to differ:

”We talked to them and came to an understanding. Then why they took this drastic step, I don’t know. It is certain that someone instigated them,” said Veena Kumari, DM, Varanasi.
”We think some media people and local politicians egged them on. It seems they told them that if they took these medications they will be unconscious for some time and then recover,” said C P Shirodkar, SSP, Varanasi.

 

The whole thing then descends into a he said-she said-I said-you said with everybody chipping in with their side of the story. While the authorities stick to their guns, the reporters say they behaved professionally and are being used as scapegoats. When interviewed, Ram Lal, the trader upon whose evidence the FIR was lodged, disavowed all knowledge of the allegations attributed to him: he says he’s illiterate, has no idea what he fixed his thumb print to, and he didn’t see the mediapersons do anything. The “local politicians” turned out to be two local traders-cum-union leaders who are yet to issue a statement.

Leaving aside all questions as to the apportioning of blame, there are so many things about this story that gross me out.

The fact that 12 men can stand in the middle of a town, announce they’re about to kill themselves, attract television cameras and union leaders/politicians – and still not find a single human being willing to dissuade them is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever heard. I don’t live under illusions of human nobility or anything but for heaven’s sake these men were going to kill themselves! And “everybody” just watched? What the hell is wrong with the people in Varanasi?

And talking of people, let’s talk about the reporters there: what exactly does “professionalism” dictate in cases like this? I remember more than one lecture about objectivity from journalism classes but where does one stop reporting and start acting like a person confronted with a horrifying act? Would those reporters have acted in the same manner in other situations? A rape? A robbery? Murder? I can’t imagine standing in front of a man about to pour pesticide down his gullet and calmly training my camera on him. Maybe my problems with journalism run deeper than my reluctance to write a boring, to-the-point header.

Then there are the vendors. Could they be more melodramatic or foolish? I understand they’re disabled, that without their tiny business they might well starve, that some asshole in authority made a flippant remark that was the height of insensitivity. But what bright brain came up with the brilliant solution of suicide by pesticide? It not only defeats the purpose but it’s surely one of the most unpleasant ways to off oneself, about a rung or so lower than setting oneself on fire.

Makes me wonder if they were all really that stupid or if somebody was actually banking on that pesticide being less potent. And who that somebody was.

[Alternate version published at Desicritics]

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4 Comments

Posted by on August 6, 2007 in News, Television

 

4 responses to “Journalists Charged with Murder

  1. Kokonad Sinha

    August 6, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    The journalists kind of lost perspective, didn’t they? 😡

    I hated it a year back, when there were a string of suicides by girls and guys of 20-25 age group – all due to (failed) love affairs. The news channels were actually loudly broadcasting SMS messages etc. exchanged between the deceased and the object of their affection. All initial reports of these incidents contained names too! It was awful.

    But this is terrible. And I wonder if the journalists are the only ones responsible.

     
  2. Ramjee

    August 7, 2007 at 2:51 am

    Why just blame the journos. Every one out there is responsible for the heinous act. how is this different from the mass genocides of the WW era. Except that these are on smaller scale, I am more afraid of such people than I will be afraid of Hitler on any given day.

    What will I do in such a position. Frankly I don’t know, for all the speak here, I know a bit or two on how crowds (and individuals as part of crowds) behave in such a setup.

    Is it our primitive animal instinct revealing its presence?

     
  3. Tanay

    August 8, 2007 at 3:37 am

    Gruesome evidence of he-said-she said-I said-you-said, with each one finger-pointing on someone else..This as you have said is utter lack of ‘professionalism’ on the part of the media, the DM Veena Kumari, SSP Varanasi C P Shirodkar.

    Still each of these would try to paint the black blame on the other, run round the courts for ‘N’ number, and finally the story is back to square one. Assume for a moment, that what the disabled people did in a fit of foolish hullabaloo was correct but then I am sure even after say 5 years from now, their condition would be the same.

    Absolutely no change. Yes, as you mention in the concluding part, it was melodrama and stupidity on the part of the vendors to have acted the way they did. Common, you don’t need to be educated in a science course or in a school to learn that pesticides are poisonous and can take one’s life. That’s understood and the message is spread through the word of mouth even in the remotest village or in rural areas. Its like ‘aa byaaal mujhe maar’

    Now as you said, who is that ‘someone’ or ‘somebody’ is the tough nut to crack in this case ?

     
  4. Amrita

    August 8, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Koke – what shocked me most was them showing images of Bob Woolmer’s dead body on a continuous loop, even zooming in for a close up before they (thankfully) decided to blur it out. Arent there any regulations in Indian TV? there’s a happy medium to be struck between regulating and censorship imo.

    Ramjee – You’re absolutely right that this was a group effort and the lot of them ought to be ashamed. And I suppose mob mentality does have something to do with it – studies prove that people are less likely to take action against atrocities when in a group. But I think somewhere along the line things just got bigger than they were supposed to. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out when both the investigating party and the reporters are implicated.

    Tanay – good question! I think we’ll never know because it sounds either like there’s a massive coverup in place or else everybody just acted like a born idiot and things just spiralled out of control. Re: your other point, The way the disabled are treated in india is a scandal and I cant even imagine being poor as well as disabled and how that must play into it, but i still think this was the height of idiocy.

     
 
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