(Published in Sify.com on 28 June, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/sarabjit-case-when-the-media-causes-heartbreak-news-columns-mg2pWtdjihb.html)
Sarabjit Singh released right after the arrest of Abu Jundal, weeks after the release of Dr. Khalil Chisty. We thought that was significant.
A few hours later, it turned out it wasn’t Sarabjit, but Surjeet Singh, another Indian who had been serving a life-term in a Pakistan prison, who was being released. Well, anyone can slip over a few syllables, huh?
And the next day, Pakistan decided to release 311 Indian fishermen as a “goodwill gesture”.
There will be bonhomie and television cameras at the Wagah Border, and renewed angst and avowals of peace from the intelligentsia on Facebook and Twitter, and there will be columns asking for visa norms to be eased.
But none of this will be of any solace to the family of Sarabjit Singh, whose long fight for their man’s release appeared to have been over at last yesterday. Some newspapers carelessly carried reports in their inner pages, celebrating the release of Sarabjit Singh, alongside happy pictures of the family distributing sweets.
The cruellest image of the political ping pong that played out on Tuesday will be that of the victims – Sarabjit Singh’s wife and daughter hugging each other and smiling for the camera of an eager reporter, their eyes bright with anticipation. Only to be told categorically that he wouldn’t be coming home; hell, he hadn’t even been pardoned.
Whether it was a genuine mistake or a brutal manoeuvre, the question we should be asking ourselves is who had the right to break the news to Sarabjit Singh’s family.
When there was no confirmation either from Pakistan or from the Ministry of External Affairs, what right did our media houses have to flash the news, quoting from the ever-available anonymous sources?
What sort of media culture are we fostering, in believing a scoop is more important than the truth? That news should reach the people it matters to least as quickly as possible, never mind what it does to the people to whom it matters most?
This particular photograph reminds me of a chilling email I found in my inbox at 1:04 PM on October 13, 2008, minutes after a two-year-old child had been pulled out of a borewell, dead. Rescue operations had been on for four days, and were finally proven unsuccessful. The email, sent by a colleague at the media house I was then employed at, read:
“Sonu is dead: Let us quickly get bites of the medical officer, parents of Sonu, army officer heading the rescue team and a PTC. Let’s beat everyone else to it, on the double!”
Chances are that similar emails hit other inboxes when 4-year-old Mahi was pulled out of a borewell on Monday.
What competition were we in, anyway? No one knows. And no one knows how the TRPs are impacted by selling tragedy. No one even knows whether the television audience wants to watch strangers standing around a borewell, hoping to rescue a child who has been down there for days on end.
Somewhere in the process of media penetration into households, vague notions of the intrepid reporter and heroic journalism have been engendered. A woman who marches into Kargil with an army of cameramen is a hero. Reporters who telecast NSG operations during a terror attack are heroes. A young man who goes into a Maoist stronghold without medicine and mosquito nets is a hero.
People whose job it is to observe and report have begun to put themselves on pedestals, to glory in their own inconveniences, and rejoice in their foolhardiness. What matters is putting a sensational image out there, no matter what the risks, no matter how grisly it is.
Bodies crushed in a stampede? Put them out there, before anyone else scoops us. Tweet saying a prisoner will be released? Put it out there, crediting a “source”. Commando being lowered on to the Taj by a helicopter? Put it out there, never mind that the terrorists are monitoring it.
Of course, when things go horribly wrong, columnists will rant about the sensationalism in the media, and people will shudder at the ugliness of it all. And when something else with the promise of triumph or tragedy or both happens, we’ll be back doing the same thing.
Clearly, a body to monitor the press isn’t enough.
What we should perhaps be doing is pulling back from ourselves a little bit, stop seeing ourselves as warriors, and start seeing ourselves as delusional megalomaniacs.
Because that is what every man and woman who screams himself or herself hoarse at 9:00 PM everyday on television is.
Because they’re so caught up by the power and popularity of their names that they’re blind to the heartbreaks they cause.
If this is what journalists aspire to, we should be ashamed both of our own ambitions, and of the industry that created them.