Farmer protests teaches national media lessons

News Desk: The last month of this strange year will be remembered not just for the ongoing and unrelenting Covid pandemic, or the upcoming (hopefully) vaccine against it, but images of thousands upon thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and other states camping out in the chill winter nights on the national capital’s borders.

The abiding image we will take back with us are the water cannons, and the trenches and barricades erected on the five roads leading into New Delhi, to prevent the citizens of a democracy from exercising their right to protest and make their voices heard.

The “farmer”, of course, is not an undifferentiated category. Yet, all farmers, rich or poor, landed and landless, women or men, only come into our line of vision when there is a natural disaster, like drought or flood, or enough of them choose to die by suicide to be noticed, or when they are angry enough to come out and protest. What happens the rest of the time is something most readers and viewers of the media in India would not know.

There was a time when newspapers had “agriculture” correspondents. Some still do. But “agriculture” as a regular beat does not exist just as “labour” has also disappeared, even though the problems faced by workers have not. In fact, with joblessness and increasing informalisation, and the decline of organised unions, the problems of workers have grown exponentially as their ability to make their voices heard diminishes.

Given that the largest section of the protesting farmers at the moment are from Punjab, this would have been a perfect opportunity for the media to educate readers and viewers about that state, thereby disabusing the ridiculous charges by supporters of the government accusing “Khalistanis” of being behind the protests.

This piece by Pheroze L Vincent in the Telegraph, for instance, gives us the necessary background of how Punjab has seen many struggles for land rights and farmers’ rights going back decades to 1907. Also this by author Amandeep Sandhu in Mumbai Mirror, whose book Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines has recently been released.

Also useful is this by Abhinandan Sekhri, sub-titled “The shrine in Amritsar offers a lesson in how opposing narratives can coexist in harmony.” He writes, “You would be hard-pressed to find many Sikhs in rural Punjab today who see Bhindranwale as a terrorist even if they don’t consider him a hero either. Yet, there are people who revere him as a hero, even a saint.” This is the moral ambiguity, he points out, that is the result of social friction arising from religious faith, something that needs to be understood in the historical and cultural context of Punjab.

Instead of even attempting to understand this, we have heard not just the usual suspects in the BJP but even so-called liberal journalists lecturing protesters on how they should avoid saying anything that could be construed as pro-Khalistan. How is offering such unsolicited advice even journalism?

Apart from missing out on context and background, although there are a few newspapers that continue to provide this, the protesters have made some important points about journalism and the media that we ought to heed. We also need to think about what is “local” news and who decides what is “national” news.

Apart from demanding that the government rescind what they call “black laws” — namely the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 — the protesters have made it a point to turn their faces away from the cameras of what they call “Godi media” (lapdog media), a term made popular by NDTV India‘s Ravish Kumar. They insist that they want to be covered by the “national” media but not by Republic TVAaj Tak or Zee News, because they believe these channels have misreported their protest and distorted their intent.

The video, in particular, is essential viewing for journalists who want to understand how ordinary people now understand mainstream media. For not only are the men the reporter speaks to angry about the way certain TV channels have covered their protest, they also make some important points about what journalism is and should be.

Suresh quotes a “local” journalist from Punjab who says, “I believe the issue is simple. Do your job, be a journalist, and report what you witness. Isn’t that what journalism is, anyway? We local reporters have been doing that from day one. For us local reporters, this agitation is two months old, unlike for national media, for whom this protest is only four days old.”

He is making a point that will resonate with people beyond Punjab and Haryana. People in northeast India, for instance, are always puzzled by how “mainland” media, as they refer to our so-called “national” media, prioritises what will be covered and what can be ignored in the hierarchy of news.

If you really want to know what is going on in the “regions”, you have to seek out regional media, as “national” newspapers have drastically reduced such coverage. There was a time, for instance, when the reports from Assam and the northeast in the Hindu by veteran journalist MS Prabhakara were essential reading for any journalist setting out to cover that region. And they appeared in all editions.

This dichotomy between what is local and what is national is not a new debate. It existed even in the 1980s, well before economic liberalisation and media houses transforming themselves into profit centres where readers are their “market” and news is whatever sells.

In fact, in the early 1980s, when I moved from Delhi to Bombay while still working for the same “national” newspaper, a colleague seriously advised me against the move. “How can you leave national journalism?” she asked. Clearly, even if you wrote on national, or even international issues, for a national newspaper, your location at the heart of the nation, ie New Delhi, was all that counted.

That perception is even more entrenched now. Today, “national” is what media houses, mostly headquartered in New Delhi, decide it is. It is also dictated by proximity to their base.

Thus, whether it was the 2012 protests after the Delhi gang rape, or the 2013 anti-corruption campaign led by Anna Hazare, or more recently the Shaheen Bagh citizenship law protests, the “national” media was available to report and amplify.

Yet, early in 2019, when over 40,000 farmers from 23 districts in Maharashtra took out a Kisan Long March to Mumbai, it did not receive this kind of blanket coverage. It was “local” because their demands were addressed to the state government.

The demands of the farmers marching to Delhi today are not that different. The reason they targeted Delhi is because the Centre has decided to intervene in matters that were largely dealt by state governments earlier. The “national” media mostly ignored these farmers when they protested in their states. They are visible now because the Delhi-based media cannot avoid their presence.

One final point. There are thousands of farmers who are also women. We have seen pictures of women cooking and some women have featured in interviews. But on the whole, all you see is literally a sea of men, reinforcing the dominant image that the “farmer” is a man.

That is not true, as thisthis and this story about Harinder Bindu, who has been a farmer for 30 years, emphasise. Women farmers are intrinsic to these struggles. Yet, journalists often do not notice them, leave alone spend time listening to them.

Our job, as the protesting farmers hovering outside Delhi are telling us, is to report what we see and listen to what people are saying, instead of manufacturing motives and conspiracy scenarios that are now the well-established modus operandi of a government that has chosen to be hearing impaired.