Shuddhabrata Sengupta on Sun, 16 Mar 2003 07:58:10 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> A Report on the Crisis/Media Workshop at Sarai/CSDS, Delhi

Crisis/Media : The Uncertain States of Reportage
A Report on the Recently Concluded Workshop at Sarai, CSDS, Delhi
by Shuddhabrata Sengupta 
(Apologies for Cross Posting to those on the Reader List)

The Sarai Programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies,
(CSDS) Delhi together with the Waag Society/for Old and New Media, Amsterdam,
 recently organized a workshop titled "Crisis/Media : The Uncertain States of
Reportage". The workshop was hosted at Sarai-CSDS,  Delhi. "Crisis/Media"
brought together media practitioners, journalists, critics, activists,
writers and students for an intense three days of reflection, dialogue and
debate on the act of bearing witness, in and through the media on a world at
crisis. The workshop opened with a provocation that stated "The crises in the
media are the crises of the media."

The Concept Note, Programme and Profiles of Participants for the workshop can
be found at the Sarai website at

A comprehensive webjournal for the event, together with detailed reports for
each session, and photographs, can be found (linked to the Waag Society's
website) at

This event, which took place on the 3rd. 4th and 5th of March, 2003, brought
together critical voices from Kashmir, Gujarat, Manipur, Delhi, Mumbai,
Argentina, the ex-Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Australia, South Africa and the
United States. It had human rights activists, anti war campaigners, and legal
practitioners dialogue with reporters who have covered intensive crisis and
conflict situations, It featured talks by writers, critics and academics, a
round table in which independent media activists discussed strategies for the
future,an impromptu exhibition of photographs depicting the situation in
Argentina today and screenings of films and videos relevant to the themes of
the workshop.

The workshop was very well attended, with people staying on after long days
for the screenings, and conversations continuing well into the night, on each
of the three days. A group of M.A. Final year students from the Mass
Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University. Delhi also
attended the workshop along with the many who had pre registered to be able
to attend.The seminar room at CSDS was packed to capacity, for much of the
three days, and arrangements were made for live video transmissions of the
panel in order to accommodate an additional thirty or forty people in the
'Sarai Interface Zone' in the basement of the new building at CSDS on Rajpur

What follows is a few vignettes and memories of some of what I found to be
the most engaging encounters and presentations that occurred during the
event. As one of the people who organized and co ordinated the event
(together with Geert Lovink from the Waag, and Rachel Magnusson, intern at
Sarai)I found that my expectations of what we had hoped to achieve with this
conference exceeded to a great extent by the depth and intensity of the
discussions, and by the excellent presentations made by the invited speakers
that prompted these wide ranging discussions. In a south asian context, where
a variety of economic, cultural and political factors enforce what is often a
crippling silence about many key issues, even as the impression of a free
media is sought to be sustained by the clamour of a sophisticated media and
news industry, this workshop had an added significance. It was able to
generate a climate that welcomed candour and free speech, and at the same
time set and maintained a high standard of discourse about crisis reportage.
It was able to be an event that could focus on very concrete issues of media
practice, without losing sight of what it means, in a philosophical and
ethical sense to bear witness to difficult times.

In our intorductiory statements, Geert Lovink and I stated that The
'Crisis/Media' Workshop at Sarai opened framed by the memory of one crisis,
and the anticipation of another. Exactly a year ago, at the end of February
and the beginning of March 2002, we witnessed a pogrom in Gujarat, in western
India. Today, the world stands a hair’s trigger away from a war in Iraq, the
consequences of which, on a global scale seem too difficult to even imagine.
These are times for sober reflection, and that, precisely, is what we often
find missing, as we open the newspaper, listen to the radio, or continue to
be lobotomised by television. Yet, a variety of different, dissident,
passionate and sane voices are also making themselves heard, through
combinations of new and old media, as never before. The 'Paid For' news of
the mainstream media is often exposed for what it is, even before it appears,
by an increasingly vigilant network of independent local-global media
initiatives. The numbers that turn out on the streets of the world’s major
capitals to protest against the plans for war against Iraq seem to suggest
that despite huge propaganda efforts, 'the spin' isn't working, at least not
all of the time. We live, as the Chinese curse, has it, in 'interesting

The workshop opened with a keynote presentation by Danny Muller, from the
Iraq Peace Team, who spoke eloquently of the way in which the rising tide of
protest worldwide against the plans for war against Iraq, showed how the spin
doctors in the media don't always get it right. He spoke of the necessity of
tactical intelligence, in order to ensure that alternative voices get heard.
He also emphasized the fact that we need to see each of ourselves not just as
passive recipients of media, but as active agents, using conversations,
letters, and other means of personal communication as effective "viral"
agents of making it possible different points of view get a hearing. He spoke
fo his experiences of talking about his trips to Iraq, and civil disobedience
through non payment of taxes, as well as his interventions on prime time live
TV shows, such as Oprah Winfrey, where he could confront President Bush with
the sheer absurdity of the drive for war. Danny Miller's presentation was a
testatment to the way in which ordinary people with limited resources can
make a difference to the media representation of any issue.

The tension between mainstream media and other ways of bearing witness to our
times remained a consistent theme through the days of the workshop. It
surfaced for instance in the plenary that  bracketed the end of the workshop,
which featured an address by Arundhati Roy, the well known dissident writer
based in delhi. Arundhati Roy, compared the mainstream media to a buffalo,
surrounded by a swarm of bees that were all the alternative and independent
voices emerging from within a politicized new media culture - she spoke of
how the "paid for" news of the networks and newspapers needs to be vigilantly
combatted. Her exposition of news as 'collateral damage' looked at how the
indigenous forest dwelling people of north kerala could be dubbed easily as
'terrorists', at the way in which the movement against the damming of the
river Narmada has fared at the hands of the mainstream media, and the easy
acceptance of official press releases as 'objective' truth as an unfortunate
part of the so called "war against terror". At the same time, she sounded an
important note of caution when she stated that peoples movements need to work
had to create an alternative political culture that cannot be easily packaged
into the familiar patterns of the "leaders and the led", and the images of
martyrs/victims and extremists that the mainstream media is so adept at using
to represent them with. Arundhati Roy , through her presentation, made an
eloquent case for the "peace correspondent" as opposed to "war correspondent"
as someone who reports not only  the wars that are manufactured and unleashed
on to people by powerful interests, but as someone who listens to and is
sensitive to all the struggles for dignity, peace and liberty that do not
necessarily make the news in the din of war. In concluding the discussion
after her presentation Arundhati underlined the need to be wary of a
"Lazyness in Language" and of the need to remain alive to the task of making
the connections that needed to be made, and to the imperative of a fidelity
to what people experienced in the world today.

Ranjit Hoskote, (Deputy Editor, The Hindu) in another plenary spoke of the
responsibilities that come with the act of speaking in a resistant voice, the
imperative not to take on the mantle of victimhood as a catcha all and not to
mirror the "repeatage" that substitutes for reportage. He emphasized the need
not to simplify, to reproduce existing inadequate categories, and the urge to
jump to conclusions, pointing out that in a conflict, very often it is
unncessary to allow oneself to be pushed into the corner of choosing one or
the other side, because, as he said, the "Truth may have more than two sides
to it"

Subarno Chatterjee (Delhi University) dissected the role of the media in the
build up of war frenzy during the Kargil conflict, and discussed in detail
the questionable way in which reportage of "atrocities" by Pakistani forces
would occupy the headlines, while different standards where applied while
talking of the behavious of the Indian military.

A panel in Hindi featured a exploration by the eminent Hindi essayist, writer
and critic, Rajendra Yadav of the crisis of free speech in the Hindi
language. His presentation, which took the form of an autobiographical
exegesis of the many attacks he has faced from the right, left and the centre
as a result of his willingness to say things that made people uncomfortable
was marked by with and candour, but also revealed a deep discomfort with the
prevailing culture of "playing safe" that has the Hindi reading public within
its grip. His presentation was followed by an anecdote laced intervention by
Abhay Dube (fellow, CSDS and former journalist)  of the "crisis' that gripped
the newsroom of a major Hindi daily (about what to say and what not to say)
on the day that the Babri Masjid was demolished by the forces of the Hindu
Right in 1992.

In two other significant panels, one on  the media reports of the Gujarat
violence, and the other on reporting situations of conflict in South Asia,
(which discussed ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka,  insurgency and state terror
in Kashmir and the north east of India) working journalists based in Kashmir
and Gujarat, spoke with depth and passion of the travails of trying to stay
close to the truth. Darshan Desai, (Outlook, Ahmedabad) ) spoke of the way in
which the political forces who orchestrated the violence in Gujarat (the
ruling BJP party) was able to successfully manipulate the English language
media's reporting of the truth about what was going on - into a discorse of
'the demonization of Gujaratis by a section of the media'. This in turn
helped turn the image of the aggressor into that of the aggreived, and was
pumped for mileage, quite successfully in the elections that followed some
months after the violence. Siddharth Varadarajan (Times of India, Delhi)
spoke of how the English language media did perform a responsible role by not
shying away from naming the victims of the violence that engulfed Gujarat,
but he also spoke of the "Anarchy" of the newspaper office, and the pressures
of daily production,  by way of explanation for the many slippages that occur
in the media's presentation of key issues of conflict. This explanation was
contested actively in the discussion that followed. Gurpal Singh (independent
filmmaker, Mumbai) spoke of the efforts of a coalition of media workers and
activists towards creating a body of video documentation in the aftermath of
the violence, that they were willing to share with all those who were
committed to speaking out against what had happenned, Arvind Narain
(Alternative Legal Forum) spoke of the ways in which the term "genocide"
could or could not be deployed in describing what had occurred in Gujarat, in
the light of the existing paradigm of international law. He spoke of the need
for engaged and  creative legal and human rights activism in coming up with
adequate responses to exceptional situations like Gujarat.

Muzammil Jaleel (Indian Express, Srinagar) spoke of a daily routine of fear,
of dealing with getting  inured to violence, until the death of journalist
colleagues in bomb attacks would shake one out of the inertia of witnessing
violence. Muzammil emphasized the necessity to abide by a professional ethic
and a commitment to telling what one sees, even if the things that you see do
not add up to a coherent picture that is comforting to either of the parties
in a conflict like Kashmir. This, he said, means everyone is out to get you,
in one sense, both the insurgents as well as the forces of state power,
because the truth is inconvenient to everyone. Manoranjan Selliah,
(independent journalist and human rights activist, Colombo) talked about the
way in which the plight of Tamil Muslims, caught in the cross fire between
the LTTE and the Sri Lankan State had been completely ignored by the media,
which chooses to ignore the victims of those it has already designated as
'victims'. A Bimol Akoijam (visiting fellow, CSDS, Delhi) spoke of the way in
which the North East of India, functions in a sense as the marginal,
repressed 'other' , yielded by the obsessive "Rastra chetna (national
consciousness)" of the mainstram media in India. This he said, was
symptomatic of a residual colonialist consciousness that still animated the
mainstream of Indian civil society and the state - the media could hardly be
an expected to be an exception to it. Abir Bazaz (independent filmmaker,
Delhi/Srinagar) who was featured as a discussant, spoke of the media's many
silences, especially with regard to the beginning of the nineties, in
Kashmir, when a massive climate of fear and repression led to an increased
sense of alienation within the Kashmir valley. He also pointed out the
tendency to be selective about the "victims" whose cause one chooses to
champion, pointing out for instance how the Kashmiri Pandit minority became
selective victims, depending on who was doing the reporting, within and
outside Kashmir.

In another very interesting panel, called "The Encounter : Truth as a
Casualty" Syed Iftekhar Gilani, (Kashmir Times, Delhi) a journalist recently
released from prison in Delhi, spoke eloquently of the kafkaesque ordeal that
journalists and others face when faced with the "Official Secrets Act".
Anjali Mody, on the same panel, spoke of how journalists have become
habituated to reproduce official (police) versions in the case of so called
"encounter" deaths, because of the vice like grip of the notion of "national
security" and  the "national interest" on the media as a whole. She pointed
out that though there were a few honorable exceptions of cases where
reporters did scratch the surface of the hand out stories about "terrorists'
slain in encounters, there was still little by way of an understanding of
what could be done so that all the nuances of a particular "encounter' were
adequately explored. Arun Mehta ( telecommunications engineer and human
rights activist) spoke at the same panel on the need for a strict scrutiny
and adequate 'forensic' standards in cases where the media highlights what is
considered to be 'electronic evidence'. He quoted a series of examples,
ranging from the Tehelka Arms Kickback Scandal to the trial proceedings in
the "Attack on the Indian Parliament" case, where the state, media
organizations, and reporters have all been slipshod in the way in which they
have dealt with what has been called 'Electronic Evidence'. Vijay Nagaraj
(Amnesty International, Delhi) who spoke as a discussant on this panel spoke
of the necessity of carefully examining simple things like police FIRs (first
information reports) to unravel patterns of violence and repression at an
everyday level. He also cautioned us against the new found global
respectability for severely repressive laws that were violative of basic
human rights as a corollary of the so called "War against Terror".

The focus of the workshop was markedly global, and we heard from Marilina
Winik (Indymedia Argentina, Buenos Aires) about the way in which independent
media initiatives were confronting the collapse of everyday life in Argentina
today. Marni Cordell (The Paper and Small, Melbourne) spoke of
experiences of working with independent and alternative media practitioners
in Indosnesia and Australia We heard testimonies of women in the South
African Media from Crystal Orderson, (Young Africa Television, Johannesburg)
and also of how radio, and the internet became essential tools in the
struggle for a free space, in the ex Yugoslavia, from Katerina Zivanovic
(Cyber Rex and Radio B 92, Belgrade) , and Adrienne van Heteren (Press
Now/Glasnost Foundation, Moscow/Amsterdam). The Crises of Everyday Life were
also examined in a south asian context in by Dipika Nath (Prism, Delhi) spoke
of the media's representation of sexual minorities while Chitra Ahanthem
(Imphal Free Press, Manipur) looked at how the HIV/Aids situation,
complicated by a backdrop of ethnic violence and state repression creates a
warped media picture of Manipur.

The afternoon of the third day began with a panel titled Confrontations in
Cyberspace. Harsh Kapur, (South Asia Citizens Web) took everyone on a tour of
the global far right in cyberspace, with an extended detours on the large
territory occupied by the Hindu Far Right, in India, and in the global south
asian diaspora. He also highlighted efforts at online resistance to the far
right, and spoke of the urgency to launch concerted online campaigns against
the far right's sophisticated and extensive web presence. Aditya Nigam
(Autonomous Media Network and CSDS, Delhi)spoke of the different political
culture that could now become possible because of the decentralized,
potentially non hierarchical structure of the web. He mentioned the crucial
role that mailing lists had played, in the wake of the Indo - Pak nuclear
tests in 1998, during the Kargil war and in the aftermath of the Gujarat
violence. These, he said were necessary and crucial to broaden and deepen,
especially when the mainstream newspaper can report mass protests as mere
'traffic jams' as had happenned recently in Delhi, even as they engineered
false 'media events' to suit particular political interests. Asha
Varadarajan, (Queens University, Kingston, Ontario)

In the final panel on the reportage of ecological crises, Darryl D'Monte
(president of the International Fedaration of Environmental Journalists,
Mumbai)spoke of the crisis within environmental journalism, as a result of
the backlash against discussion of ecological issues within mainstream media.
He spoke of how column inches of in depth and analyrical reportage on
environmental matters had actually declined, even though issues like "Global
Warming" did have high visibility. Sanjay Kak (independent film maker, Delhi)
spoke about the necessity of putting politics back into environmental
reportage, and of dealing adequately with the time scales that are important
in the politics of environmental issues, which the mainstream media's
obsession with "events" is generally unable to accommodate or grasp. Pradip
Saha (Down to Earth Magazine, Delhi) gave a verywitty  but sharply critical
analysis of the nittiy gritty of the reportage of an issue like "water" in
the mainstream media. Complete with graphs of frequency distributions of
seasonal patters of reportage in newspapers of water related themes, Saha
drove home the point that the media generally followed the patterns of
thought laid out by the state and by corporations when it came to the
reportage of basic issues. He made a strong appeal for a systematic analysis
of the political economy of media ownership and control patterns and the way
in which these patterns impinged on the reportage of environmental issues.
Ravi Agarwal (Environmental Activist, Toxics Link, Delhi) spoke of how the
only environmental issues that get any real coverage in the media are those
that can be presented as "disasters". This implies that the everyday issues,
which are structural, which have to do with basic economic and political
questions often get sidelined. He also spoke of the need for effective media
strategies for envirnomental activists, not necessarily relying on the
spectacular, as wealthy organizations such as Greenpeace are able to do, but
relying instead on methodical and systematic investigation, analysis and
innovative ways of presenting findings to a broader public.

Apart from the discussions and plenaries, each days programme ended with a
screening. The first evening featured "Before the Rain" by Milcho Manchevski,
which was introduced and located within the context of the history of
conflicts, and media representations of that conflict in the ex Yugolavia, by
Costas Constantinou (University of Keele)

The second evening featured a screening of "Paradise on the River of Hell" a
personal reflection in video on the situation in Kashmir, by Abir Bazaz and
Meenu Gaur, followed by a  selection of short films by different groups from
Argentina, which was introduced and  presented by Marilina Winik.

The final evening's film was "Words on Water" a film on the peoples
resistance movement to the building of big dams on the river Narmada in
Central India, by Sanjay Kak. Each of the screenings was followed by a lively
and animated discussion with the filmmakers and presenters.

The workshop also featured an informal round table on future strategies for
alternative media inititatives, which saw the participation of inedpendent
media activists such as Sanjay Bhangar (Indymedia Mumbai) , Marilina Winik
(Indymedia Argentina), Marni Cordell (Small Voices, Melbourne), Katerina
Zivanovic (Cyber Rex, Belgrade) and others.

The atmosphere at the workshop bordered occasionally on the electric,with
intense discussions following incisive presentations and plenaries. The
workshop was for many of the participants, (as well as for all those who
attended) an opportunity to talk about and listen to many issues of critical
importance that had for a very long time been smothered by a suffocating,
uncritical culture of  silence in South Asia. If anything it did demonstrate
that there is hope yet, within our societies, for the emergence of  a
consistent, critical and vigilant climate of examination of the media - as
one more node in the matrix of power. It would not be an exaggeration to say
that the workshop also laid for many who came to the attend, the seeds of
thinking about "doing" media as a way of challenging the same matrix of
power. We hope that the conversations that began during this workshop will
play some part in the realization of a critical culture of media practice,
that instead of lurching from one crisis to another, is able to do some
justice to the times that we live in today.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: