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Koodankulam – The lies the media told us

October 2, 2012

by Roshen Chandran

How should the media report conflicts over development between the government and affected communities? How has the media been covering one such struggle – the anti-nuclear struggle at Koodankulam?

In September 2012, the anti-nuclear struggle at Koodankulam reached a crescendo when thousands of villagers walked through the beaches and protested at the walls of the nuclear plant. The government tear gassed the protesters and unleashed violence on the villagers. The events received wide media attention.

A piece that caught this author’s eye was a report by P Sudhakar in The Hindu titled “Normality returning to Kudankulam” on September 12. Writing from Kudankulam, the report mentioned “the police arrested those who damaged public property and threatened vehicles” and featured a photo of police peacefully escorting a villager. Readers were not informed about the police violence on the villagers, nor the acts of vandalism by the police during those days. The report presented the protesters as a violent mob.

That report was not exceptional; it was typical of a pattern of media coverage over the last several years. The media sometimes lied, often omitted facts and frequently stayed silent when reporting the conflict between government and people at Koodankulam. This is an unhealthy trend we need to reverse to promote justice and peace.

Here are some of the untruths the media told us.

  1. Where were the protesters all this while?
  2. The delay was caused by the protesters
  3. Painting protesters as luddites
  4. Hunger strikes starved of media coverage
  5. India’s “excellent” safety record
  6. Fukushima is not a nuclear accident
  7. Grid failure and the need for Nuclear Energy

Where were the protesters all this while?

The protests against the plant intensified from August 2011, as the nuclear plant neared opening. Pundits in the media began questioning why the people hadn’t protested earlier; they wondered why the villagers were silent all this while. Russian Ambassador Kadakin was quoted saying “We still don’t know why it took six months for the protests to erupt after Fukushima”

The implication was that these protests were instigated by vested interests just when the plant was about to start functioning.

They ignored the long history of protests against the Koodankulam nuclear plant. They forgot that the protests had begun from the very beginning – 23 years ago. The first stone-laying ceremony on December 19, 1988 had to be indefinitely postponed because of local protests. Over the next 2 decades, the protests continued across Tirunelveli, Nagercoil, Kanyakumari.

The media, like the government, ignored the protests.

The delay was caused by the protesters

News media repeatedly asserted that the Koodankulam protesters caused the delay in the opening of the nuclear plant. It is implied that if the protesters hadn’t blockaded the plant, it would have been commissioned on time. For instance, the Times of India and many other news outlets reprinted a PTI report of September 2012 asserting that “the first unit was scheduled to be commissioned in December last year but had been delayed by the protests by locals on safety concerns”.

According to S K Jain, the CMD of NPCIL, the Koodankulam nuclear plant was scheduled to be commissioned in December 2007. This was independently confirmed by the Russian deputy atomic energy minister Vladimir Asmolov in an interview to RIA Novosti. The blockade began only in September 2011. If the plant is commissioned in September 2012, the total delay is 57 months. The protesters blockaded the plant between September 2011 and March 2012. The protesters thus caused a delay of 7 months.

When the media reports that the delay in the commissioning of the nuclear plant was caused by the protesters, it ignores the much bigger delays caused by NPCIL and misinforms the reader.

Painting protesters as luddites

The media frequently portrays those opposing nuclear energy as Luddites, as anti-technology and as anti-progress. For instance, the Times of India wrote in September 2011: “Fast-developing India can’t rest content with Luddite responses to technology, as frequently manifested in misguided activism be it against transgenic crops or nuclear energy. “

Six months later, that portrayal continued with the Times of India asserting: “Transparency and engagement are thus all the more necessary to counter Luddite propaganda and boost awareness of nuclear energy’s benefits.”

To call those skeptical of nuclear energy as luddites ignores the vibrant scientific debate on nuclear safety worldwide. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, to take just two international examples, have highlighted safety concerns in nuclear plants for decades. In India, those opposing nuclear energy include scientists from Indian Institute of Science and Indian Institute of Technology. One could hardly call them luddites. Why then would protesters drawing content from them be considered luddites?

Hunger strikes starved of media coverage

Anna Hazare’s hunger strikes dominated the news channels for weeks. Mounting public support for the hunger strike forced the government to engage with Anna Hazare. If the media had ignored Anna Hazare’s hunger strikes, the public wouldn’t have known about it and the strike would have fallen flat.

In May 2012, three hundred women and twenty five men went on an indefinite hunger strike in the fishing hamlet of Idinthakarai protesting against the nuclear plant. Over ten thousand villagers thronged the protest site daily in support of the hunger strikers.

A study of the most widely read English newspapers in New Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata showed that urban readers had few opportunities to read about the hunger strike at Idinthakarai. They never got to see images of large crowds supporting the hunger strikers. The government ignored the protesters. Starved of media coverage and wider support, the hunger strike was withdrawn 14 days later.

India’s “excellent” safety record

The mainstream Indian media uncritically repeats the claim of the nuclear establishment that India has had an “excellent track record of safety”. Newspapers like The Hindu quote officials claiming that “nuclear power stations in the country were operating without any major incidents for the last 40 years”

They ignore the series of nuclear incidents in India’s power plants. They forget that they themselves had reported these incidents in earlier years. A recent study showed that the media systematically underplays the safety concerns of Indian nuclear power plants.

Fukushima is not a nuclear accident

In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster, several Indian media outlets, reprinted the claim of S K Jain, the CMD of NPCIL dismissing the nuclear accident. For instance, the India Today quote Jain saying “There is no nuclear accident or incident in the Japan’s Fukushima plants. It is a well planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake.”

Many months later, The Hindu was still reporting similar claims by the nuclear establishment uncritically. Thus in September 2011, The Hindu reports S C Chetal, Director, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam observing that “the Japanese nuclear tragedy in the aftermath of the tsunami was not nuclear-related

Contrast that with the report of the Japanese Parliament’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. The Commission concluded that the nuclear disaster “was a profoundly man-made disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.” They said that “Governments, regulatory authorities and Tokyo Electric Power [TEPCO] lacked a sense of responsibility to protect people’s lives and society. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly ‘man-made'”.

Grid failure and the need for Nuclear Energy

Twice in July 2012, parts of Northern India suffered a massive power blackout as the electricity grid failed. Pro-nuclear advocates in the media used the opportunity to argue that the grid failure clearly showed we needed more sources of energy, and nuclear energy was essential. The media reinforced the simple assumption that the grid failure happened because of shortage of power generation.

The causes of the grid failure were more nuanced than just a shortfall in production. Shortfall in power was only one contributing factor, and probably not the most important one. As Zakaria Siddiqui explained “Such failures take place because regulatory agencies and state officials at state-owned transmission and distribution utilities cannot act independently even if they have the mandate to do so on paper. Politicians directly appoint and fund them, and can transfer them to other departments and organisations if officials do not act according to their whims and fancies and ignore regulator-set standards”

The grid failure showed the need for better management systems. The mainstream media ignored the broader implications of the grid failure and beat the drums for greater power generation alone.

Author: Roshen Chandran is an independent researcher.


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