8 August 2011
Satiated with advertisements, many Bihar newspapers and magazines ~ some of which exist only on paper ~ toe the government line, almost unmindful of the growing public anger. Manoj Chaurasia reports
WHEN Britain’s 168-year-old News of the World tabloid finally shut down on 10 July this year, even its “farewell edition” sold an amazing 4.5 million copies. The important question here is why a newspaper owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch folded up. The reason was put down to the anger aroused in readers by reports that this “best-seller” had hacked the phones of a murdered girl, the relatives of dead soldiers and hundreds of celebrities, politicians and royals and, in a sense, just forgot basic media ethics to keep its circulation moving.
One may agree or disagree, but the most common perception in Bihar these days is that many of the newspapers published from this state also seem to be following in the footprints of now-dead British newspapers to some extent, almost unmindful of the building public anger. Readers are angry over the way “government announcements” — and not the issues of the common people and the Opposition — find “good coverage” and how local dailies and magazines, quite a good number of which are nearly non-existent, feast on government advertisements. The general perception among readers is that the local media is hugely obliged to accept government advertisements that carry the ruling disposition’s agenda while it is supposed to allot space for the common good.
The state media was exposed in a case filed on 3 June 2011 with regard to the Forbesganj police firing in which four members of the Muslim community were killed while protesting against the blocking of their decades-old rights of passage by an upcoming maize starch and liquid glucose factory being set up Auro Sundaram International Ltd at Forbesganj in Araria district. Except for a few, most newspapers underplayed the firing story and, worse, did not think it fit to carry the reports of the many fact-finding teams, including the one led by the National Commission for Minority chairman, that visited the villages to record grievances.
Reports now say the Press Council of India is considering complaints against several Hindi and Urdu newspapers published from Bihar for being “non-objective” in reporting the police firing. The PCI is said to have received several complaints from Bihar regarding the “anti-people and pro-state attitude” of several newspapers. The major charge has come from Bihar Media Watch, an NGO that, in its report to the PCI, has accused Hindi and English newspapers of being “pro-state” with regard to the firing story, stating, “It’s painful to submit that no newspapers published from Patna carried the heart-rending picture of the incident showing a policeman jumping over the body of a seriously injured victim who immediately died”. It has further accused the media of violating the “basic moral ethics” and “minimum code of conduct of journalism”, saying that even the NCM chairman’s visit did not make news in many newspapers.
“This news (the visit by the NCM chairman) was not published in the largest-selling Hindi newspaper, Hindustan, while Prabhat Khabar made a mockery of it by publishing the news on page 16 in the classified column consisting of 20 words. So far (as) Dainik Jagran is concerned, it did not even consider this news worth publishing,” said the BMW complaint. Its punch line read, “Initially, the visit by (the) NCM did not find coverage in Hindustan, but on the return of the NCM back to Delhi, the newspaper made comments on its front page editorial, ‘Do Tuk’, on 24 June 2011, giving it a communal colour, which shows newspaper’s pro-state and biased attitude.”
In the current controversy over the allotment of industrial land to some “powerful” people with political connections, the media’s role has assumed precedence over the relatives of ministers, lawmakers and bureaucrats who are alleged to be beneficiaries of the government’s “largesse”, as has been alleged by the Opposition. The government could be right in giving a “clean chit” to the beneficiaries on the ground that “established norms” were followed in making land allotments to the persons in question, but this also raises doubt. How could certain media houses, including one led by a film celebrity, have managed to get industrial plots in the state? The obvious question that follows is: How could these media houses write against the government when they indulge in making hay while the sun shines?
The local media has also been accused of carrying forward the ruling NDA government’s “agenda” of seeking special category status for Bihar. One of the Hindi newspapers went to the extent of launching a signature campaign among its readers and visitors while another used this as a page one flier just a day after the Mumbai serial blasts that consumed most of the front page space in other dailies. During elections as well, most of the local media were accused of crossing the basic “Laxman Rekha” by giving “extra” coverage to the NDA coalition and then projecting its grand victory in the exit polls.
What has apparently compelled the local media to go “pro-state” is the attraction of advertisements being liberally distributed, irrespective of circulation status. According to a report procured by Purander Sawaran, a Right to Information activist, from the office of the Information and Public Relations Department, government of Bihar, the state gave advertisements worth more than Rs 28.47 crore in the last financial year (from 1 April 2010 to 28 March 2011). Of this, a huge share of over Rs 10.12 crore went to Hindustan while Rs 5 crore worth of ads went to Dainik Jagaran. The irony here is that a fairly good amount of advertisement money went to Urdu dailies and other local papers, many of which exist on paper only. This apparently was the reason why even the Urdu media maintained a mysterious silence when the Forbesganj police firing took place.
Funnier still was that some of the papers and magazines walked away with a heavy chunk of advertisements although few readers are familiar with their names and their existence. Some of these are Desh-Videsh (Bhagalpur), Mosallah and Halat-e-Bihar (Samastipur) and Nai Baat (Bhagalpur), although they claim their circulation runs into the thousands.
Says Ajay Kumar, editor of bihartimes.com, a news portal, “This seems to be the strategy adopted by the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar. In the last six years it has given so much to the media houses in the name of advertisements that they cannot open their mouths to say anything. It is another thing that someone may ask: Is the media in Bihar as immature as a child and can be hoodwinked into silence by a mouthful of candy?”
The writer is The Statesman’s Patna-based Special