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Providing a context to communal divides…

June 6, 2012

Often, when the media reports on a story, they provide some of the facts. Now, of course, facts can come embellished with drama, adjective, hyperbole and can get fudged too. But when the facts are presented in a context, as in this blog by Kingshuk Nag in The Times of India, they acquire a greater punch. Entitled: How Gujarat bucked a national trend, the blog refers to the incrreasing isolation of Muslims from mainstream society, typified by the denial of housing to them:

A story carried in TOI’s Ahmedabad edition last week is illustrative of the present state of affairs in Gujarat. It reports a tale of peaceful demonstrations accompanied by Ram dhuns in front of a bungalow owned by a Hindu in the city of Bhavnagar in Saurashtra. The bungalow was being sold off to a Muslim and the saffron brigade laid siege till the Hindu bungalow owner acquiesced and called off the deal. The story notes how in the last few months many such deals – of Hindus trying to sell property to Muslims – have been stymied in Bhavnagar, the only city in Saurashtra to witness riots during 2002.

Yes, “ten years after madness” things remain quite the same in Gujarat. True there has been economic growth and Ahmedabad is well on the way to becoming a major automobile industry hub. There has also been a marginal improvement in social indicators but society remains polarized like it was a decade ago. In Ahmedabad, you can be a well-to-do Muslim with enough moolah, but still can’t buy property in “posh” enclaves or middle-class areas. Certain areas are demarcated for Muslims in Ahmedabad and they can only stay there. There are hardly any exceptions to the rule.

Muslims do find it difficult to get jobs or do business, they avoid mainstream schools or colleges and it is incredibly difficult for Muslims to find the accommodation they seek. Muslim friends have so many stories of being turned down from housing societies in posh areas of Mumbai, in Bangalore and Delhi. Most of this is at the individual level. Very few flat-owners actually take the fight further (Madhavi Kapoor, Principal of Aman Setu school in Pune was a heroic exception).

But when political parties orchestrate campaigns such as this, it is the collective bad that we witness. Is the media courageous enough to slam this?


Trading for a peace dividend

May 8, 2012

That’s the thrust of the front page lead and a full inside page coverage of the economic conference hosted by the ‘The Times of India- Jang newspaper group Aman ki Asha in Lahore, Pakistan on May 7 and 8, 2012.

But are better trade relations and the strengthening of economic ties a sure-fire way to build peace in the sub-continent? Obviously, that’s not an easy question to answer.

The Aman ki Asha project of the two media groups – both the strongest in their countries, seemed such a contradiction in terms when it was launched in January 2010. The sabre-rattling of the Times Now after the November 26, 2008 attack on Mumbai was still fresh in everyone’s minds and the Jang group was also not exactly dove-ish in its coverage of its neighbour.

The initiative, spelt out in the FAQs on its website, managed by the Jang group, takes pains to point out that both groups shall not water down the editorial policies of the two groups.

Nevertheless, the two groups came together and hosted several cultural events, all of which recieved ample publicity in their respective media networks. So, after all the ghazal events, the sufi music programmes and the tentative discussions on screening Bollywood films in Pakistan, cricket seems the next stumbling block…Typically, today’s coverage in The Times of India hopefully poses the question: Will India, Pakistan resume cricket ties?’, blissfully forgetting the “Pakraman’ coverage the Indo-Pak cricket matches have elicited in the past. But, with such a lot of hope in the air, let’s not go there….

So the 45 CEOs discussed visa issues and talked of better cooperation in trade, the potential for which is estimated at least $12 billion (from the present $2.7 billion – according to the TOI report). They discussed how India and Pakistan can function as a single economy under Art 24 of the GATT, the problems in moving ahead on trade despite according Pakistan the most Favoured Nation status and how the ‘informal’ trade between the two countries must be legalised.

Bugbears were reduced to code. The ‘K’ word made only one item in the sidelights to the conference, only to state that it wasn’t mentioned by anyone present and that the economic track could, finally, run independently of the political one!

Alas! if only it were that simple. You simply can’t take the political out of the peace process.

Perhaps only when that happens, will the dots on this initiative connect.

When protest is citizen journalism

May 1, 2012

Groundviews is the pioneering citizen journalism platform created by Sanjana Hattotuwa under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo. From its origins in a deeply polarised moment of conflict, Groundviews has been a space where very divergent opinions could be aired and debated. Such has been the quality of the content, that this has become a go-to site for those interested in Sri Lankan politics. 

Last week, when a mob stormed and vandalized a mosque in Dambulla with the support of local clerics, Groundviews took its work up a notch by launching a trilingual blog-cum-online petition: Not in our name

Simply reconstructing the sequence of events and stating their consequences, the blog invites readers: 

“We have a choice, but time is running out. Speak up. Put your name in a comment below, in English, Sinhala or Tamil. Say that last week’s violence was not in your name. Renounce a fringe lunacy and resist extremism. By putting your name below, oppose mob violence and bigotry as ways to resolve disputes.”

In less than a week, hundreds of Sri Lankans have signed up. The comment space gives each individual voice a platform that online petitions don’t allow. And coming from CPA/Groundviews, it is a plausible platform. 

In addition, Twitter and other social networks are being used effectively to draw attention to this campaign. Groundviews’ Twitter channel draws attention to new signatories, famous and otherwise: 

@Groundviews Former High Commissioner to #India, Mangala Moonesinghe signs up to Not In Our Name Have you?#srilanka#lka1 hour ago

I wanted to blog about this on this peace journalism monitor because even as journalism has become so much more than a morning newspaper or a news broadcast, there are few who have been able to harness its potential creatively and inclusively. The “Not in our names” campaign takes citizen journalism and the use of social media to a new level. 

Every now and then you come across a campaign like this and are filled with admiration… and envy. Now why didn’t we think of doing this? 

Giving peace a chance

April 23, 2012

Peace took centre stage in the Sunday Times of India of 22 April. A banner headline running right across the top of the full-page Special Report conveyed a clear message:  “Love thy neighbour.  It’s time.”

The lead story by Shobhan Saxena reviewed recent developments that suggest that “hope has replaced doubt,” including Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani’s unanticipated comments a few days ago in favour of the “demilitarisation” of the Siachen glacier and “peaceful co-existence” with India.  Saxena pointed out that the real mood-changer has been the exchange of singers, writers and actors, as well as interactions between business leaders and even army officers (the latter under the aegis of the India Pakistan Soldiers Initiative for Peace).

An interview with Pakistani parliamentarian Ayaz Amir by Sameer Arshad, headlined “India is no longer seen as enemy,” indicated that old mindsets have changed and the new mood is in favour of a less fractious, more cooperative relationship between the two nations.

The guest column by Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar, headlined “In the air, a hope song,” paid tribute to the sustained groundwork done by peace-loving people on both sides of the border over many years.  According to her, the foundation laid by citizens and civil society groups strengthens and has in turn been strengthened by the Aman ki Asha Indo-Pak peace project jointly launched by a Pakistani media house (The Jang Group) and an Indian newspaper (The Times of India) on 1 January 2010.

While the brief interview with External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, headlined “We need to be patient,” was not particularly enlightening or enriching, a note of caution was added by the final piece, headlined “Peace on the horizon, but it’s a hard trek,” by Indrani Bagchi.

A column by Gurmeet Kanwal on another page of the Sunday Times of India also suggested that “It’s time to melt frost in Siachen.”

On Friday 20 April, too, the second edit in the TOI (with the Aman ki Asha logo inset in the text), headlined “Words of hope,”  proposed that it would be a good idea to build on General Kayani’s message.

Edits on the subject in other newspapers on Saturday 21 April were less positive:  “Is Kayani serious? Wait and watch”   (Deccan Chronicle), “Don’t buy peace at cost of national security” (The New Indian Express).

Interestingly, on Saturday the TOI’s global news page carried a report by Sameer Arshad, reviewing Pakistani media coverage of General Kayani’s remarks.  It was headlined “Pak media hails Kayani for his stand on Siachen.”

On Friday other newspapers were more preoccupied with the successful launch of the inter-continental ballistic missile, Agni-V, the previous day, with lead edits on the topic:  “The ‘game-changer’”   (The Hindu), “Agni success must propel self-reliance in defence” (The New Indian Express), “The Agni effect”  (DNA).  The TOI’s edit on the subject, which appeared only on Monday 23 April, seemed to view the success of Agni V as an “Insurance Policy”  and a boost for “India’s diplomatic depth.”

Interestingly, DNA obviously thought this particular event deserved editorial comment even though it has done away with the tradition of daily edits.  I found one sentence in the edit particularly intriguing:  “China, however, has not been able to inspire much confidence about its motives in an Indian population that is still to live down the humiliation of 1962 despite its great love of Chinese food and cheap Chinese products.”  Even I was only nine years old in 1962:  how real is that conflict to the vast majority of Indians today?  And if it is indeed a bone in the throats of some fellow citizens what roles have history teaching and media commentary played in keeping it stuck there?

What is puzzling about the Times of India’s stand on peace between India and Pakistan is that it seems rather inconsistent. First of all it appears significant that the Aman ki Asha project is restricted to its flagship newspaper whereas, across the border, it seems to have been embraced by the Jang group as a whole.  Perhaps this is at least partly why the campaign appears more active and sustained across the border (judging by the websites on either side).

Aman ki Asha related stories have so far not been regularly featured even in the daily. But the fact that the TOI devoted yet another full page to Aman ki Asha (“Destination Peace”) coverage on 23 April may indicate some change.  Of course, perhaps predictably, the page was almost entirely related to the possible peace dividend for business and trade.

Maybe the fact that the project is confined to the daily newspaper could also explain the contrast between coverage of Indo-Pak relations in the TOI, on the one hand, and Times Now, the Times group’s 24-hour news channel, which appears to offer a dedicated safe haven for Indian hawks.

For example, the Newshour “debate” on the question “Are Pakistan’s intentions malicious?”– triggered by General Kayani’s remarks on Siachen and anchored by Arnab Goswami in his inimitable fashion – featured the usual line-up of retired army officers nursing old wounds (not necessarily their own), defence analysts zealously guarding their possibly endangered territory and former diplomats who seem to have forgotten what diplomacy means.

Media Freedom Must be Guaranteed in Sri Lanka’s National Reconciliation Process

April 12, 2012

As journalists in Sri Lanka began a campaign on January 25 in memory of colleagues who fell in the island nation’s civil war, the response of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government suggested a commitment to “national reconciliation” that does not go beyond empty gestures.

Sri Lanka’s journalists believe that the climate of impunity for attacks on the media should be dispelled as part of the healing process after a quarter century of ethnic strife. Human rights defenders who stand up for a fair society should be allowed a free voice if national reconciliation is to be a possibility.

Government spokespersons began a campaign of hostile rhetoric soon after the Free Media Movement (FMM) – a platform shared by Sri Lanka’s journalists across linguistic and ethnic divides – announced its intent to begin this campaign on January 25.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has learnt from sources in Sri Lanka, that in the second week of January, the government-owned TV channel launched an attack, bristling with unseemly personal animus, against the FMM.

While playing old footage of journalists who used the FMM platform, the TV channel ran a commentary on its news programmes, attacking them in virulent terms.

On January 10, Sri Lanka’s government-owned newspaper accused the FMM of petitioning the European Union (E.U.) to terminate bilateral trade preferences granted the country. This is a complete travesty of the FMM position, which has been to address the Sri Lankan government with the urgent need for it to live up to basic human rights standards.

Prior to the FMM’s demonstrations of January 25, the government secured a court injunction restricting the protests to a narrow area around Colombo’s Fort Railway Station, a major landmark in the capital city.

Gangs of stick-wielding toughs reportedly took over the area just before the demonstrations were to begin. They carried placards explicitly identifying the FMM as an ally of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the insurgent group defeated by government forces in 2009 after a civil war in which gross human rights violations were rampant on both sides.

On January 25, the government-controlled newspaper, the Daily News, carried an editorial which warned that any effort to “sabotage the progress of the country by disruptive elements (would) be put down”. The editorial identified the FMM as an organisation that has “been in the forefront of lambasting the Lankan state on numerous issues”.

The IFJ believes that the tone of official commentary speaks of a determination to pursue the policies that led to the bitter estrangement of the past.

The report of a commission appointed by President Rajapaksa as part of “national reconciliation” was published late-2011. This voluminous report, by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), has only modest space for media freedom. But its language is compelling.

The LLRC records that it has been “deeply disturbed” by the persisting reports, even after the end of the war, about “attacks and obstacles placed on journalists and media institutions”. These difficulties have been experienced even by “news websites”.

Taking note of a record of murderous violence against journalists, the LLRC remarks that the failure to “conclusively” investigate and bring “perpetrators” to justice does little credit to the Sri Lankan government.

The IFJ and all its global associates are encouraged by the LLRC recommendations. These include the recognition of the “pivotal role” that “freedom of expression and (the) right to information”, play in “any reconciliation process”. “Restrictions placed on media freedom”, the LLRC records, “would only contribute to an environment of distrust and fear within and among ethnic groups”.

The five specific actions that the LLRC urges, include “deterrent punishment” against those who attack media personnel and institutions; the proper investigation of such incidents from the past; the assurance that media personnel would have freedom of movement through the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, which bear the deepest scars of the war; and the enactment of a law protecting the right to information.

Despite the clear roadmap sketched by the LLRC, the IFJ and its global partners are seriously concerned that the Rajapaksa government seems intent on escalating the rhetorical violence.

The IFJ recalls that this manner of rhetoric contributed directly to the brutal attack on Poddala Jayantha, then the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, in June 2009. Jayantha, a highly awarded journalist, suffered permanent disability and now lives in exile.

In January 2006, S. Sukirtharajan, a photographer with the Tamil daily from Colombo, Sudar Oli¸ was shot dead by assailants on motorcycles, just days after he published photographs suggesting that five Tamil students found dead in the eastern city of Trincomalee had been victims of an execution by state security agencies. A cable from the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka at the time has now come to light, which records Basil Rajapaksa, brother and senior advisor to the President, expressing his belief that the “Special Task Force” of the Sri Lankan military carried out the killing of the five students.

The IFJ calls upon the Sri Lankan government to explain if Sukirtharajan was killed because he got the real story of the Trincomalee killings, which the President’s advisor was only willing to share in confidence with the U.S. envoy.

In August 2006, the Jaffna office of the Uthayan newspaper – part of the same group as Sudar Oli – was attacked with fire bombs and seriously damaged. As narrated to the U.S. ambassador in Sri Lanka, again by the President’s brother, this attack was in all probability carried out by the Sri Lankan Navy, in league with a Tamil political party that is a close ally of President Rajapaksa’s.

In one of the most shocking incidents since the civil war was officially declared over, the news editor of Uthayan was attacked with iron rods on the streets of Jaffna and left for dead shortly after elections to local bodies in the northern province in July 2011. The newspaper had editorially supported the opposition parties which registered significant wins in the elections.

The LLRC commented sharply on this attack which happened during its deliberations.

The IFJ and its global partners conclude with extreme regret that the Sri Lankan government’s continuing failure to act against this manner of lawlessness, indeed its seeming eagerness to promote the rancour that contributed to the violence, suggest not a desire for national reconciliation, but its very opposite.

The importance of being Hafiz Saeed

April 11, 2012

No sooner had the US government announced a bounty of 10 million $ on Jamaat ud Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed, there was a mushrooming of his profile in many papers. I saw one profile on the Daily Times website,  Pakistan as well. The sudden rash of  what read like a dossier on Saeed in the Indian papers too was a bit puzzling. Though I did learn a lot about this man- for instance that he was a Gujjar and harboured a deep hatred of Indians right from birth and would have certainly been killed as a baby had  his mother not crossed over to Pakistan. The Daily Times says 36 members of his family died in the Partition riots while they fled from Shimla to Lahore. No doubt those tragic circumstances shaped Saeed’s psyche despite his extensive education and teaching,  to become what he did.

It is quite laughable that the US has placed a reward for man who is publicly seen and heard  and  challenges the Pakistani government almost every minute. How did these long bios of Saeed help any? If he is the person behind the November 26/11 blasts in Mumbai, as some of collected evidence seem to point out,  then it is about time that he was proceeded against criminally. Even the BBC called him Pakistan’s ten million $ bounty man much in the manner of the  Wild west stories where putting a bounty on some gunfighter was common. Hafiz is no ordinary gunfighter and the bounty, well the US announced it knowing quite well it may not have to ever cough up that money!

Sample post

April 19, 2011

Coming soon.