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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Poll battle divides media


Tags : journalists | political schism | indira Gandhi regime | CPI(M) | Ananadbazaar Patrika | Nandigram | Left Front rule | Mamata Banerjee | West Bengal | Chief Election Officer | R-Plus security | INC |

This time the elections in West Bengal are different from any previous Assembly election in the state because the media too is divided into two camps – pro and anti government. Media analyst Sevanti Ninan aptly summed up this situation in her fortnightly column in The Hindu. She observed that West Bengal is a state where “the media chooses whom to cover, and the politician chooses whom to talk to”.
The media owners and the politicians are to be blamed for today’s sharply divided situation. According to senior journalists, media persons in this state were subjected to state torture even before the Left Front came to power. They recollect that legendary journalists like Gour Kishor Ghosh and Barun Sengupta were put behind the bars during the Emergency.

According to Rantideb Sengupta, assistant editor of a leading Bengali daily, “Jawahar Lal gave importance to the freedom of the fourth estate. But the situation worsened during the Indira Gandhi regime. Media came under attack from the ruling class. The CPI(M) was vocal against such attacks during those days, but changed sides once they captured power. They are carrying on the legacy to this day.”

Indeed, the CPI(M) is infamous for several attacks on journalists in the recent past. Scribes were beaten up at Singur when they got there to perform their duty. Even a reporter of a pro-CPM television channel was not spared. Sukharanjan Sengupta, a retired journalist from Anandabazar Patrika, said, “Covering news in Nandigram from the Khejuri end was barred by the CPI(M).

Entry was not allowed for several days except for those backed by the party. On March 14, 2007 – the day the police opened fire on the people of Nandigram and killed 14 persons, scribes were ‘not allowed’ access. Even the state Governor was not allowed to reach Nandigram by the ruling party’s activists on November 10, 2007.
Supporting his party cadres, CPI(M) leader Shyamal Chakraborty alleged, “Journalists were supplying arms in their cars”. The same voice was heard from the state administration during ‘Operation Green Hunt’ at Lalgarh. The administration alleged, “There might be stooges of Maoists” only to justify a curb on the media. Several journalists were detained and beaten up at Jangalmahal. Sevanti Ninan noted, “A senior police officer, briefing during an encounter, snapped at a senior scribe, asking which side of the war zone he was on! The Sahara Samay Chief of Bureau, Saadia Azim, described last year how both leading political parties make it difficult for journalists to ask questions at a press conference. There is so much intimidation, that a follow-up question requires considerable courage.” The CPI(M) is not alone. A few days back, on April 18, a Kolkata TV reporter was snubbed during polling by Biswanath Choudhury (Minister for Jails and an RSP central committee member), when he approached him for a sound byte. On learning that the scribe was from Kolkata TV, a pro-TMC channel, the minister refused to speak to him.
This culture of trying to gag or not to co-operate with media persons is a derivative of 34 years of Left Front rule. Little wonder, even the media is sharply divided. Channels like Akash Bangla and 24 Ghanta dish out inspired footage favouring the CPI(M) but Kolkata TV, Mahua TV and Star Ananda at times criticise opposition leaders, including All India Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, who herself has a record of snapping fingers at pro-CPI(M) reporters and TV channels.
During the recent poll run-up, leaders again showed their dislike towards media, with Chief Minister and Left Front Chairman leading the tirade. When a reporter asked a question to Front Chairman and CPI(M) Politburo member Biman Bose, he threatened the scribe saying, “What’s your father’s name?”. Known for abrasive utterances, Biman Bose lashed out at a journalist last week, “How dare you shoot a question to me? You are only a lad.” Challenged by a reporter to prove the allegation that Mamata Banerjee and her party were using black money in their poll campaign, Bose said, “If she is not getting US fund, are you or your media house paying her?” Addressing an election meeting, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who is also the minister for information and culture, said, “Ami sangbadikder kola dekhai (I care a fig for journalists).” But his comrade and Cabinet Minister Goutam Deb opined, “There should be only two channels, not more than that. What’s the need for so many? I cannot even remember their names.”
Eminent journalist Soumya Bandyopadhyay describes this situation as unprecedented. The editorial advisor to North East TV (known as NE Channel) said, “The amra-ora (them and us) divide in the media is happening since the post-Singur-Nandigram days. The differences of approach and opinion among media platforms existed in the past but today’s no-compromise scenario has never been seen before.” Bandyopadhyay admits that the media did proffer one-sided news in the past as well, but rivalry between the media was absent. This difference developed into a big crack in time and today media and politicians are using each other for their own reasons. This uniqueness is best witnessed in this year’s state assembly election.
In fact, the Bengali print media has always supported the Congress. The only aberration was Basumati, which backed the CPI till early 60s. With the closure of Jugantar, new vernacular newspapers like Bartaman, Aajkaal and Sangbad Pratidin emerged. By then, the CPI(M) midday daily Ganashakti become a morninger. The CPI had its morning daily Kalantar. Aajkaal joined Ganashakti and Kalantar to support the ruling Left, while Bartaman, started as an anti-establishment daily, became the mouthpiece for people supporting Mamata. The journalists who initiated Sangbad Pratidin, of course with the help of investors, were tilted towards the communists. The paper echoed Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government’s line till the police fired on unarmed people in Nandigram.
However, the television scene is very different. Star Ananda, editorially backed by the Anandabazar Patrika group, was projecting Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee since he became chief minister. It has coined the word ‘Brand Buddha’ for the CM’s initiatives of industrialisation. But the Nandigram episode forced them to criticise Buddhadeb government from time to time. Within this period, two pro-CPI(M) channels emerged – Akash Bangla and 24 Ghanta – the latter with Zee TV backing. On the other hand, new channels like Kolkata TV, Channel 10, Newstimes, Tara TV and the recently started Mahua Bangla support the ant-Left combine — overtly or covertly.
Soumya Bandyopadhyay, who was once associated with Kolkata TV, analyses, “Although Kolkata TV sided with Mamata Banerjee and her associates, the analysts with Left backgrounds are airing judicious and balanced views during the poll run-up.” Admitting the rivalry among media houses and even between scribes, Subhasish Maitra of Kolkata TV told Media Watch, “Some journalists are supporters of the ruling party and some others are not. Journalists in Delhi have assumed a more progressive role and we should learn from them what journalists’ self respect means.”

Newstimes did an excellent job by bringing out district-wise pre-poll analyses, backed by constituency-wise data. The whole survey, funded by the channel, was monitored by Professor Biswanath Chakraborty of Rabindra Bharati University and implemented by a group of over 500 ground-level staff. This requires a special mention as such detailed and authentic analysis was never done before directly by any media house. The remaining TV news channels go on airing talk shows – with single or multiple speakers from political parties. Earlier channels with deep pockets hired public places to organise such shows in the presence of people. But due to some untoward incidents, channels reacted negatively to such options. So, in a sense, TV channels did nothing new this time. Mamata Banerjee is the ‘hot cake’ this time around, but only Star Ananda has access to her. The channel is the only one that flies with her on her helicopter as she tours the state.

Even two pro-Mamata channels — one backed by Kolkata Mayor and Mamata’s close confidant Sovan Chatterjee and another backed by TMC MP Swapan Sadhan Basu — had to stay behind. R-Plus channel telecast a special interview of the West Bengal Chief Election Officer to sensitise viewers about the election’s new rules and regulations. This helped a large section of people and found the going much easier this time. This kind of interviews helped them, said Jayanta Chakraborty, the chief of the channel.

Interestingly, R-Plus refrained from airing any pre-poll survey. But poll forecasts by three channels indicate a clean sweep in favour of All India Trinamool Congress-Indian National Congress alliance. The survey done by Star Ananda-AC Nielsen and endorsed by Anandabazar Patrika predicted that the Left Front strength would drop to 74 from existing 233. Interestingly, the same figure is predicted by Mahua TV, but distribution of seats was different. Mahua TV, in a previous study, based on a statistical analysis of progression of a trend from the panchayat polls of 2008, Lok Sabha elections on 2009 and municipal polls of 2008, predicted 61 seats for the LF. But later it increased the tally to 74 seats. “This reflects a slight recovery for the Front,” claimed the CPI although it doesn’t quite endorse the views of CPI(M) general secretary Biman Bose and Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee that the LF is set to register its 8th consecutive victory, bagging at least 148 out of 294 seats. Kolkata TV was the only channel that more or less hit the bull’s eye during the LS polls of 2009 and municipal polls of 2010. It sticks to its forecast: AITC-INC alliance heading for 240-plus mark.

It’s a fact that the Bengal media is willy-nilly polarised. Even some veteran commentators are willfully getting swayed by this unfortunate propensity. Shikha Mukherjee, formerly editorial head of the Kolkata edition of the Times of India, says in her latest post-edit: “Bengal: Change, yes; but doubts too” in Asian Age. She said in the beginning, “From the certainty of Paribartan under the Trinamool Congress, chanted as a mantra over the past five years, the question that has replaced it is: Will there be an eighth Left Front government? The question has suddenly gained traction and is now the opening statement before the politically aroused Bengali launches into speculation on the outcome of the ongoing West Bengal Assembly elections.” She thinks rather through laboured argument that the possibility of victory of Left Front looms large, refuting psephological analysis.

Veteran journalist Sankar Roy warns journalists of such psephological analysis. He told Media Watch, “Predictions in elections in India have been suspect but interpolations based on recent past trends are different from the pre-poll surveys and even exit-polls that end mostly in damp squibs. Most such analyses, mainly numerical scan of poll statistics and forecasts on the basis of them, suggest far less than 90 seats for the LF in the 294-seat legislature.” The polls would soon be over, but will the rivalry among journalists end? Veteran journalist S R Sengupta of ABP group is candid, “If the ‘change’ does not lead to betterment, the people will change yet again. So the administration would have to play a neutral role. If that happens, the media will also do much the same.” The people of Bengal will have to wait for the future to unfold for the answers aren’t exactly blowin’ in the wind.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017