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Freedom to inform, not to inflame

It was appalling, last weekend, to read some of the shameful and most reprehensible comments by Indians and Pakistanis about some Pakistani songs/singers on YouTube. I do not know if there is another stronger word for this kind of hateful vulgarity about an art form. Quite apparently, in a computer-savvy world, many feel empowered and emboldened to say what they like and carry their animus to such base levels. Some are possibly even younger and it is frightening to think that this hatred is what we have taught them. Where did they learn this? At home? School or college, if they went there? Or at some workplace? Is this freedom of expression? Should we leave this unchecked? Who will check, and punish, if necessary? Are we not letting things slide dangerously? Who will pay the price for this freedom?

The growing problem today is not just the content, but also the medium used without restrictions and the need to balance basic freedoms with responsible reporting and commentary. We did not learn the value of measured reporting, as we saw the horrific coverage of the Mumbai 2008 terror attack. Pic/Getty Images
The growing problem today is not just the content, but also the medium used without restrictions and the need to balance basic freedoms with responsible reporting and commentary. We did not learn the value of measured reporting, as we saw the horrific coverage of the Mumbai 2008 terror attack. Pic/Getty Images

One cannot comment about Pakistani society, but Indian society needs to discuss this objectively, dispassionately and not, as we normally end up, discussing in terms of regions and religion. This is about all Indians, and adversarial interstate relations should not descend into perverted nationalism.

Imagine these are the very people who probably become cheerleaders or participants in communal riots and spread hatred among communities that would then get reported in this Internet Age and by multiple TV news channels in competition with each other. Surely someone somewhere must think beyond just making the quick buck. This is the most pervasive danger and this is what terrorists want.

Outside the cloistered confines of computer rooms and smartphones, we see signs of growing intolerance and irrationality. Our newspapers carry stories about the Ujjain University Vice Chancellor being roughed up by ABVP bullies because the VC was organising relief from flood victims in Jammu and Kashmir. At the other end of the scale, we have Kashmiri goons stoning relief-bearing helicopters. Yet again, there are reports that some local busybodies want participants to carry their ID cards for garba celebrations. There are other examples of unverified needlessly provocative claims by persons in public life about madrassas or meat exports that show this growing intolerance. Individually, these may not be major incidents in a large country like ours; yet, if these incidents are unchecked and reported disproportionately, they become the proverbial prairie fires.

No one uses the media better than terrorists. There is a certain morbidity about violence, jihad included, where the strength and reach of a jihadi organisation is directly dependent on the extent of their brutality and how much of this is visible, on graphic video, on social media apart from the more traditional means of communication and information. Each incident that gets reported several times on several channels with different interpretations quickly becomes one incident magnified into a thousand incidents. While reporting this as a fact, we need to ensure that this kind of a group or their actions do not get the publicity they do not deserve.

Prior to the advent of multiple round-the-clock TV news channels, editors/journalists would seek confirmations of stories, would crosscheck and seek comments of those involved, and particular attention was paid to the headline. Not so any more, it seems. Competitive sensationalisation allows no such luxury. The growing problem today is not just the content, but also the medium used without restrictions and the need to balance basic freedoms with responsible reporting and commentary. We did not learn the value of measured reporting, as we saw the horrific coverage of the Mumbai 2008 terror attack.

Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, in her address at the Ram Nath Goenka awards ceremony, said the media was the fourth pillar of democracy. A free and fearless press benefits society and the nation. It follows that the level of responsibility expected of the other pillars is equally expected of the press.

A free and independent media is the finest example of a free society. We have that in India and we are blessed because of this. But, now and then, it is necessary to introspect and think of a course correction, maybe.
When to report, how much to report and when not to, is part of responsible reporting. We have not quite mastered this. As a result, terrorists and other malcontents get the publicity for free, against us.

The media has a responsibility to inform; also not to inflame.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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