The Media Rumble 2020 embarks on a four-day digital forum
New Delhi: This year’s edition of the annual news media forum, The Media Rumble (TMR), which was online, began on Thursday with some of the leading names of the media industry discussing the biggest story of our time – Covid-19 – as well as critical issues like ‘Hate News’, gender representation in newsrooms, press freedom and how foreign correspondents view India and how India views the world.
An inaugural address by Sanjoy K. Roy, MD, Teamwork Arts, marked the start of the forum. In his opening remarks, Roy said, “Amidst the cacophony of viral WhatsApp messages, high-decibel TV debates, competing news feeds which play out as fiction, we have arrived at a crossroad of sensationalism and democracy. NEWS today tends to be stranger than fiction, and more often than not, based on disinformation rather than a presentation and analysis of facts. As the public negotiates their daily reality, we find that NEWS has become a power unto itself. A power to divide nations, propagate hatred and violence, sell lies and myths, create fear, target minorities, incarcerate people, egg on lynch mobs and upend democratic practices. Yet NEWS has the power to bring down dictators, stop the felling of trees, the killing of animals, bring in transparency and change, give succour and relief to those who need it most, track down criminals and murderers, change unjust laws and usher in change.”
The Media Rumble, hosted by Newslaundry and Teamwork Arts, brings together award-winning journalists, analysts, commentators and industry experts from India and across the world, to debate and discuss the challenges, innovations, economic realities and future possibilities of the medium, given the hitherto-unseen realities of the pandemic that has impacted every sector and every individual.
The first session of the day was Foreign Correspondents’ Club: How India and the world view each other, presented by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The conversation focused on how Indian foreign affairs correspondents cover India’s engagement with the world and how the international correspondent, stationed in India, reports on the country. Peter Max Rimmele, Resident Representative of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Office, India, in his introductory remarks, spoke of Indian and German relations going way back to the 16th century, the establishment of an important trade link between the two countries, and how diplomatic ties between both countries are based on the spirit of mutual trust.
The panel featured Alex Travelli, India correspondent for The Economist; Amy Kazmin, South Asia Bureau Chief for the Financial Times; Nimisha Jaiswal, India correspondent with Deutsche Welle; Parul Chandra, Deputy Editor with StratNews Global; and Suhasini Haider, Diplomatic Editor of The Hindu. The session was moderated by Zakka Jacob, Executive Editor of CNN News 18.
The session explored various aspects like how stories about India are presented in view of the stereotypes that exist; the challenges of finding the right story amidst the multitude of issues presented by India’s diversity and complexity; the access that foreign correspondents have and where India stands in the priorities of global media outlets. Speaking about how reportage on the country has grown, Amy Kazmin said. “The kind of coverage devoted to India and the kind of stories that are covered are a reflection of India’s importance in the world, and its own claims about where it fits in the world.”
A critical issue discussed was the disparity between what comprises national news in the country and the imperatives that foreign correspondents have to focus on when reporting critical national issues and how India is viewed from a global standpoint. The panel agreed that the biggest news stories in the country today are the steady incline in the country’s coronavirus cases, the contracting economy and border tensions with China, which are being heavily overshadowed, especially in electronic media, by the singular story surrounding the tragic demise of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
Suhasini Haider spoke on the shrinking access to information on critical national issues, both to the journalists and the public at large. “People think they are getting more news today than they got before simply because of social media, simply because of real-time media, simply because there is so much out there; in fact what is happening is that much of it is being used in a sense to actually constrict the information people are getting.” she said. She highlighted particularly the blurring of facts, the lack of identifiable sources providing concrete information and the lack of accountability of governments. Speaking about the Indo-China conflict, Haider said “Compared to every other conflict in the past, journalists have the least access to information about the Indo-China standoff at the LAC. There have been abject denials of facts that have later turned out to be true.”
COVID-19 – The biggest story of our time, the next session explored three distinct aspects of the pandemic story – health, economics, and socio-political realities, emphasising particularly on India. Dhanya Rajendran, co-founder and Editor-in-chief of The News Minute moderated the panel featuring Aditi Priya, a Research Associate at LEAD at Krea University, Chennai; Barkha Dutt, Indian television journalist, the Founder and Editor of Mojo; Vivek Kaul, a widely published writer on economics and finance; and Banjot Kaur, a journalist for a little more than 10 years, who has reported on health for the last eight.
The pandemic and its impact on various strata of people in India was at the centre of the conversation. Barkha Dutt, who extensively covered the on-ground situation of migrant workers, spoke of the humanitarian crisis threatening to take over the medical crisis; and how the two crises were running on parallel tracks. After traveling with the migrant workers up to their homes, she is now keeping a track of them as many are looking to come back to the city for lack of any work or income in their villages. She highlighted the fact the economic challenges initially faced by migrant workers are now increasingly being felt by the lower middle class and the middle class due to lack of employment and salary cuts.
Vivek Kaul spoke on how important news related to the economic impact of coronavirus was not being adequately highlighted and not where it should be. “Most writing on the economy is in a technical language that most people don’t understand. It’s very esoteric. And it’s mainly in the English news media”, he said. He lamented that non-stories have essentially become the main stories of the current crisis.
There was also discussion about public health and welfare policies, the shortcomings of the public health infrastructure and the tremendous financial burden of healthcare people in India face. Aditi highlighted the challenge of identification of migrant workers impacting their access to public services including rations, the looming threat of starvation, the cost of healthcare and other similar issues resultant of state policies, social security, and public health.
Banjot Kaur spoke on the lack of importance given to health journalists, the need for dialogue on public health and the sensitivities and imperatives of covering such a subject, especially in television media, where there is little regard for who needs to speak when, what needs to be spoken and how it needs to be spoken.
In the session on Gender Representation in Newsrooms, the panel explored how a newsroom’s gender representation impacts its reportage and its administrative functioning. The session moderated by Faye D’Souza, one of India’s most prominent broadcast and digital media journalists, was an in-depth discussion touching various topics with great insights related to the representation of women in the media industry. The panelists comprised Meera Selva, director of the journalist fellowship programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford; Nishtha Satyam, Deputy Country Representative for India at UN Women; Patricia Mukhim, Editor of The Shillong Times; Sandhya Ravishankar, an award-winning journalist and Editor of The Lede.
It started with Faye pointing towards COVID-related unemployment and how it specifically impacts women owing to issues like the fact that female journalists are commonly assigned softer subjects, are often not in leadership positions and are more likely to be tending to the needs of the entire family during this time. Nishtha said that some of the data is already out and women are twice as likely to be impacted as men when it comes to economic uncertainty. She cited an example of the analysis of the Ebola health crisis when women took twice as long to come back to their jobs, and more than fifty percent of them did not come back for the same job, pay, or designation.
The discussion further highlighted the abysmal situation in regional media. Sandhya Ravishankar said that most certainly things are worse off in the Tamil media and other regional media as well. She spoke about the challenges women face including lack of empathy from male colleagues, female workers being given softer assignments, the imminent threats to women when reporting on-ground and very often at the workplace as well. She cited an example of how female colleagues were often referred to with pronouns like ‘it’ rather than ‘she’ or ‘her’. Patricia Mukhim talked about the various difficulties women still have to face in society, in their work culture and the lack of opportunities. She highlighted the magnitude of the impact this has caused, given that the rate of divorce is increasing in the North-east and there are more single women who have to support their children.
Speaking about the possibilities of betterment, Meera Selva pointed out that in the world of work, skills that are needed in a developed economy are not manual skills. Social interaction, empathy, networks – these are all considered ‘female skills’, and we have a marketplace where women are better skilled for the jobs of the future.
In the session-Radio Rwanda: Hate News that led to genocide, Claude Mugabe and Mahmood Mamdani, in conversation with Manisha Pande, discussed various layers of the historic Rwandan genocide. According to some estimates, 10% of all deaths in the Rwandan genocide were caused by hateful broadcasts. Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was a Rwandan radio station which played a significant role in inciting the genocide against the Tutsi. Claude Mugabe, who is himself a young genocide survivor (he was 9 years old at the time of the genocide in 1994), narrated his personal experience on how Radio Rwanda dehumanised the minority Tutsi population by calling them cockroaches and snakes and how that altered the majority of the Hutus’ minds by propagating hate which led to their giving away information on the hideouts of the Tutsi. Claude gave a chilling account of the genocide in which his own sister was killed. Leading African intellectual and author of When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and Genocide in Rwanda (2001), Mahmood Mamdani spoke on the history, politics and cultural nuances behind the Rwandan genocide. He visited Rwanda three months after the genocide and found the incident quite unusual as millions participated in it. According to him, media participated not only willingly but overenthusiastically. The session further discussed the impact of hate news on a country and the role of journalists and governments behind violence.
The last session of the day on Press Freedom brought forward the issue of violent attacks on journalists across the globe, intimidation by government agencies in both democratic and authoritative countries, polarisation of news professionals and how technology has impacted the media. Moderated by Abhinandan Sekhri, Co-founder of Newslaundry, the session had him in conversation with Joel Simon, Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Abhinandan pointed out the key matrices of CPJ – the impunity index, the number of journalists in prison and the number of journalists killed. Joel Simon said, “The global environment of press freedom is getting worse. There has been a historic and steady rise in the number of journalists who have been put in prison across countries.” He particularly pointed to the pandemic period as a “Covid Crackdown” by governments on journalists.