Cauvery Issue: Did regional television channels fan the figurative flames?

Editor of one channel said they "voluntarily" reported that Bengaluru police invoked Section 144
Cauvery Issue: Did regional television channels fan the figurative flames?
Cauvery Issue: Did regional television channels fan the figurative flames?
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“Amma, we (in Karnataka) too have Tamils, and Tamil Nadu-registered vehicles. Be warned.” The man who said this was not one of the few thousand men who went about indulging in vandalism and arson in several parts of Bengaluru on Monday. These words were uttered, with full theatrical effect, by the news anchor of a Kannada news channel.

On Monday, the law and order situation in Bengaluru deteriorated in the hours after the Supreme Court modified its order, directing Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs to Tamil Nadu till September 20. Throughout the day Kannada news channels vied to outdo each other and be provocative.  

Sample this for instance. Sometime after 9.30pm on Monday, the editor of one the oldest Kannada news channels said on air: “We voluntarily reported that prohibitory orders have been invoked with the intention of preventing riots in Bengaluru. But the police went and clarified that they had not invoked prohibitory orders. What does one make of their sensibilities?”

(Reports that Section 144 had been imposed began making the rounds around 1pm. But as the rumour began to spread, the police were forced to clarify that no prohibitory orders had been imposed. It was only at 5pm that the city police invoked Section 144 across the city.)

Another news anchor said on air: “Nothing could be achieved by maintaining peace, there’s no other option but to protest with violence and arson.”

According to Scroll, Tamil news channels behaved in a similar manner. On Sunday, Tamil channels ran on loop, a video clip of a Tamil youth being assaulted allegedly for mocking Kannada actors on the Cauvery issue. On Monday morning, a petrol bomb had been thrown at the New Woodlands hotel in Chennai. Three hours after the attack was first reported, four petrol bombs were hurled at the hotel, Scroll reported.

In Karnataka, several Kannada channels had their own trajectory of provocative reporting. One journalist who requested anonymity described it thus: “It’s like they went with kerosene in one hand, and a ready disclaimer in the other, asking people not to spread panic and rumours.”

The language used by the channels while reporting on the protests and vandalism was troubling. Most channels persisted with using terms such as “pro-Kannada” to describe the groups protesting over the issue. On Monday, the tickers and taglines run by the news channels suggested that the whole city was burning even though violence was localized to some pockets.

Kaveri krodhagni kshandinda kshanakke teevra swaroopa padkolltha ide” / The fiery anger over the Kaveri is rising in intensity from one moment to the next

Kaveri kichu” / The fire of Kaveri

janara horatakke police nirbandha” / Police restrain the people’s struggle (with regard to Section 144)

Although it was clear within a few hours that the protests had descended into vandalism, there wasn’t a word of condemnation from most news channels in their coverage although they ran separate notices periodically, urging people to maintain calm.

For instance, despite vandals setting fire to around 40 buses at the KPN Travels depot in Nayandahalli on Monday evening, news channels still called them “horatagararu”, a word which signifies a noble person who fights for a cause and whose meaning is simply not captured in the English equivalent “activist”. For vandalism, journalists usually use the term “kidigedigalu” or “dushkarmigalu” meaning “miscreants” or “vandals”.

Through Monday, as social media provided a counter to the news monopoly of the mainstream media, many people were scathing of the media which they felt was alarmist.

By evening as things quietened in Bengaluru, the manner in which Kannada television channels covered developments in the city became a subject of discussion among journalists. Some joked while others expressed deep dismay.

A senior journalist with a Kannada daily told The News Minute that this was probably the worst crisis of credibility that the Kannada media had faced. He said that their coverage was obviously driven by the expectation of higher ratings, but the scope for self-criticism is very limited.

“We are bound by Kannada and so our world is very limited. We have nowhere else to go, but it’s not the same with English journalists. We cannot be critical of our fellow journalists the way English media can. It is essential this behaviour is criticised,” he told The News Minute.

Senior journalist DV Rajashekar, who has been in the profession for 36 years, told The News Minute that perhaps things wouldn’t have got so out of hand had news channels exercised some restraint.

“Had the media treated it just as a stray law and order problem instead of a problem between speakers of two languages, maybe things would not have got so out of hand. They should have shown some restraint, some responsibility. The people who were on the streets in Bengaluru yesterday were street thugs, what do they know about language or language harmony? Instead, the media played it up. After setting fire, they’re appealing to others to maintain calm,” Rajashekar said.

Rajashekar said that the tone of such reportage could not be explained away only by the greed for TRPs. The ratings for channels are likely to be higher, but not significantly.

In his view, introspection is required as the problem is much larger. “From morning to night channels show us about ‘immoral relations’ and sleazy crime. It’s a mad race. Because one channel is doing this, everybody is doing it. How do we set this right? This question has always bothered me. Maybe if the people reject us, through TRPs, we might learn, might correct ourselves.”

On Tuesday however, channels were somewhat subdued, perhaps taking a cue from the criticism and from newspapers that were more objective in their coverage. Newspapers however, showed some restraint.

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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