Tamil Television and the War in Sri Lanka
These are indeed sad times in the land (TN) where political propaganda of several hues got their expositions and teeming audiences through political films, plays and newspapers since the late 1940s. In the face of the gripping tragedies that are befalling innocent Tamils in the war-torn Srilanka every day, what one encounters in Tamil Nadu is a sordid propaganda game where truths about the goings on in Srilanka have become the casualty. At a time when the Western world is taking stock of the magnitude of genocide of Tamils in Srilanka, what is at work in the Indian media are one of the worst fascist propaganda campaigns since second World War. I have been following the propaganda wars in Indian media at least since the days of Emergency (1975) and all through the end of Cold War period (when nearly 20 tonnes of printed propaganda literature from Soviet Union and US used to land in India every month) and right through the rise of the rightist and fundamentalist BJP in 1990s. Given my orientation in the areas of political communication and propaganda since my student days, It does not take much effort to spot easily newspapers from propaganda rag sheets. Most Indian newspapers, I am afraid, are fast transforming themselves as the later. We no longer find newspapers adhering to the basic norms of journalism as before. It seems Indian media have come to the last post in its downhill journey wherein plants, handouts from vested interests and lies/half truths masquerade as news. Indian journalists and editors seem to be either sleeping when they are working or do not know the norms that should be governing their everyday practices. You name the newspaper, it is easy to spot news stories that seek to do the unthinkable and the impossible – editorialising. More news stories are trying to compete with that forlorn and yet sacred piece in a true newspaper, rather mistakenly, and in a complete foolhardy manner. Reporters who are supposed to write their news stories seek to editorialise even as they open their first sentences. My professor in the journalism class of early 1980s used to drive home the message of the famous editor of Manchester Guardian, Charles Prestwich Scott (1846-1932) that “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” This maxim has no trace of material or semantic support in the content of Indian media today.
The blatant propagandistic coverage of the Srilankan civil war by the Indian media stands as a strong testimony to the above. Going by what the Indian newspapers and television channels have been delivering since Nov.2008, it is apparent that what was ridiculed as the “embedded journalism” during the early days of Iraq war can in fact take much worse forms in the Indian context where media are mindlesslessly lapping up the propaganda campagins of one of the actors in the conflict and fail to validate the facts of the case either through the other party’s or independent sources. The other side of Iraq war was made known only by the bloggers. The other side of the Srilankan war is also being exposed by the bloggers in Tamil blog aggregators like Tamilmanam
Ethnic conflicts are easy to cover for those who seek to get either jingoistic or propagandistic, forgetting their roles as objective and dispassionate purveyors of all the possible dimensions of truths in a civil or military conflict. In that sense, ethnic conflicts pose challenges only for those who care for the responsibilities of ethical conflict reporting. It becomes like any other routine beat for journalists who who do not care for the fundamentals of objective conflict journalism. In the not so distant past, many eminent news organisations and journalists exposed themselves more than the central actors in the conflicts they covered, largely due to their mindless collaboration with the state agendas and partly due to their inability to come to terms with the norms of objectivity and fairness required by conflict reporting. The case of CNN and the likes of Christian Amanpour during the heady days of Iraq war are worth remembering here. Not surprisingly, “embedded journalists” quickly became objects of ridicule and scorn. The present crop of Indian journalists writing from Colombo and from Delhi and Chennai seem to be embedded perpetually in a foreign country’s war apparatus and sound more like PROs of military establishment than journalists working for media institutions in world’s largest democracy.
To the best of my knowledge, I have not come across a fair journalistic piece on the Srilankan civil war since the Vellikada prison massacre of 1983 either in the mainstream English press or the Tamil press. Like the mainstream and local political parties in TN, Indian media have also taken extreme, and as a consequence biased positions, with regard to the human tragedies in Srilanka. As the rhizomatic sites of the Tamil blogosphere are trying to pitch in with varied and spine chilling accounts of the scorched lives of babies, children, women and men in the Vanni area of northern Srilanka, majority of the Indian media are yet to inform their readers and audiences about the truths of Srilankan war and the attendant genocide of Tamils. The Indian reader and viewer has not been informed about the scale of the genocide (7000 – 20000 is the figure doing the rounds in Tamil blogosphere), the actual casualties on the Srilankan army and Tigers’ sides. Some sources say that close to 20000 soldiers died and nearly 5000 tigers died). But no one knows the truth. At least, in these varied accounts in the Tamil blogosphere, one is able to come to terms with the enormous loss of precious human lives on the side of the Tamils and Sinhalese. If you are a reader of Indian newspapers or a viewer of Indian television, even this understanding would be an impossibility given their penchant for lies and half truths.It does not require elaborate large scale content analysis to discern the same. Majority of the mainstream English media have allowed themselves as the official spokespersons for the Srilankan Army, throwing to winds all the basic norms of journalism, the same holds true for a section of the Tamil press which has taken a partisan stand in favour of the Tigers.
TN holds a peculiar site for public sphere, thanks to the lack of cross media ownership laws in India and the rise of the neo-feudal political and social planes. TN also holds immense possibilities for those interested in tasting the real lows of the political economy of media in ‘flawed democracies’ like India. TN is probably the only geographical location in the world where majority of television channels (there are two dozen channels) are controlled/owned by political parties and business groups with strong filial connections in the families that control two of the major political parties in TN, DMK and AIADMK. These entities also produce and distribute films, publish Tamil newspapers and carry ad nauseum promotional ads of the same in their channels. Imagine the plight of an independent film producer who wishes to release his film in the face of these massive flagellation of political, economic and advertising power of such entities. Not surprisngly, it has now become routine for Sun TV to provide a big kick for its home productions and distributions on its numerous channels and newspapers. The gullible Tamil television audience is the one gets willingly trapped in such a media environment just to tell Theodor Adorno in his grave that he is remembered every moment in the subaltern existence of the subjects/victims of such media goliaths.
With this backdrop, let us get back to the opening sentence of this post which said: “These are indeed sad times in the land (TN) where political propaganda of several hues got their expositions and teeming audiences through political films, plays and newspapers since the late 1940s.” Why? The incredible and unthinkable shocking turnaround in the propaganda games Indian and Tamil media have been playing since 1983 happened this week with the blackout of the Srilanka news by the channels controlled/owned by DMK. These include Kalignanr TV and Sun TV. I first noticed this on 30th May 2009 when I sat through the 30 mins. morning newscasts of these channels and Makkal TV. To my shock, I found that the 30 mins. newscasts of these channels were sanitised (rid of Srilankan war news) to convey the impression that nothing was happening to Tamils in Srilanka. This was the day when shelling by the Srilankan army killed 200 Tamils (only Deccan Chronicle carried the story on the front page, while other English and Tamil newspapers harped on the usual propaganda stories from the Srilankan Army). Believe it or not, neither the killing of 200 Tamils in the shelling by the Srilankan army nor the supposedly major reactions/interventions from countries in the West mattered as worthy items for inclusion.
The 30 min. morning newscast of Sun TV yesterday had Pakistan’s war against Taliban as the lead item and there were stories on Swine flu and elections in Argentina. Today’s (02 05 2009) Deccan Chronicle, Tamil Osai and sites in the Tamil blogosphere which deal with the Srilankan Tamil issues had prominent space for the satellite images of UN about bombing in the NFZ in Vanni. Again, today’s morning newscasts of Sun TV and Kalignanr TV Tamil were thoroughly sanitised to enact a make believe propaganda game where blacking out the inconvenient truth defines what is not television journalism.
As everyone in TN knows, the present parliamentary election is being waged with the Lankan genocide as the main issue by the polarised political parties. And it is no secret that DMK and Congress have been facing the brunt of criticism for failing to stop the genocide in Srilanka. In such a context, these instances of blackout of a naturally important yet inconvenient stories have more to reveal than hide about the sad times in the land where political propaganda of an ideological and social kind bloomed and ruled the roost n the past. When DK and DMK were first tasting their hands at the flavours of political propaganda during the 1940s and 1950s, blacking out/censoring of unpalatable truths were not as common, brazen and crude as during the sad times of political communication in TN today.