Thursday, February 18, 2010

Media Hyperbole & Free Speech

The release of Shahrukh Khan’s latest film, My Name is Khan (MNIK) has become the biggest story in print and electronic media for the last one week. All the noise started when the self-declared Moses of Mumbai, the senile xenophobist, Bal Thackery has criticized Sharukh for saying that Pakistani cricketers should be taken into IPL teams. This statement, Thackery claimed, is anti-national and threatened to disrupt screening of Khan’s movie. Sharukh refused to budge and apologize. The media went hammer and tongs hailing Sharukh’s stand as heroic and went to the extent of equating watching the film to taking a stand for independence and free speech. What a comedy !! Indian media trivializes even the most critical and sensitive issues and waters down them, in its mad race to reach one slot higher than the competition to garner advertisement revenues. Unlike Sachin or Mukesh Ambani who have gone public saying Mumbai is for all Indians, Sharukh has never made public his stand on Shiva Sena’s jingoism. Sharukh, all said and done, is a matured businessman and his loss-making Kolkota Night Riders team in IPL needs players of caliber to notch up a few wins. So he might have wanted some Pakistani players to buttress his team, which the media has ignored and made him into a real life hero. While it is gratifying to note that Thackery’s calls to boycott the film have been defied by the public openly, it is sickening to watch and read the media catch on to it as if Freedom of Speech and democracy in India depends on this one issue and exhorting public to defy Shiva Sena by flocking to the theatres screening the movie. Putting Shiva Sena in its place requires not flocking to the theatres but media blackout. A party confined to small pockets in one state needs the media platform for survival. However, for the media, ratings was the primary interest, not freedom of speech or taking a collective stand against hooliganism and intimidation. There have been numerous other instances recently of clamps on freedom of speech and never the media had this kind of sustained coverage to drive public behavior. One of the world-renowned painter, the 94-year old F M Husain is in exile in Dubai. Why was he forced to leave his home country. Because right wing religious parties and groups could see nudity of a Goddess in a few lines he sketched on the canvas. Where was the media then. Taslima Nasrin was expelled from India in 2008. Deepa Mehta’s movies, Fire and Water both came under Sena’s ire. The poor taxi drivers of Mumbai who have migrated from all parts of India were vandalized by Sena activists on the urgings of Thackerys. Since these issues do not have the same easy marketability, they were just reported. And easy marketing is at the heart of this campaign. Issues connected with India’s two loves, cricket and Bollywood, a media savvy celebrity, a comic book goon and the perception of participation by painless flocking to movie halls has made this campaign an effort less marketing for the media.
The real fight for freedom of speech and democracy should be the fight against our desperate poverty. Yet there is frighteningly little focus and interest in transparent governance, the prioritization and allocation of the country’s resources for its people. And there are serious issues at stake. The Food Security Act (FSA) is on the cards. FSA says that there are people in our country who don’t even have enough food for basic sustenance. That their numbers are so large that the States and Central Government have been slugging out for months trying to figure out eligibility criteria and a sharing arrangement that they can afford. We also have the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which entitles each rural household hundred days of unskilled work at minimum wage. These Acts are a testimony to the fact that we have kept a large portion of our population out of the growing economy. However, not even a miniscule percentage of airtime and column space has been spared to discuss these issues. Even worse, there is no national passion for these issues. I shudder thinking of the future of this country, with two-thirds population being crushed under the burden of poverty and the apathy of the media towards critical issues.