Handling ULFA

Media messes up the message
by Sanjoy Hazarika

IT is more than a month since the chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was arrested by Bangladeshi security officials and handed over to Indian forces on the Bangladesh-Meghalaya border, after he and his cohorts were intercepted as they fled to Chittagong and planned an escape to Myanmar to link up with Paresh Baruah, the organisation’s military chief.

After screaming headlines in Assam and in the metro media, and near-hysteria in the visual media both in New Delhi and the North-East for a few days, the issue of Arabindo Rajkhowa, his future and that of ULFA and its association with Assam diminished and even vanished barring a few odd articles for the metro media by reporters based in Guwahati.

I recall doing something like 11 interviews for television, by phone and directly with the studios of the major networks in the space of those days. And always there was a feeling that one was being hustled or sought to be hustled by prejudiced and noisy anchors (anchors are supposed to “anchor” or hold a discussion together, not try and push interviewees to their point of view) who had an agenda and were determined to hector and try and browbeat people into submission. It is not a pleasant experience, especially so when the interviewee fights back — the discussion is no longer about substantial issues but about scoring points. The most professional and balanced interview was by the anchor on NDTV; I was interviewed in that time-frame by Times Now, Headlines Today and CNN-IBN, among others.

As far as the Rajkhowa incident was concerned, almost every channel was interested in one pet theme, barring the circumstances of his capture: when would the talks be held? (to be fair to the anchors, it was not really about them as to what would they or the channel heads — at times this was made more complex since the anchor himself or herself was either the top honcho in the channel or one of its top guns – thought would sell). I kept asserting in interview after interview that all this speculation was premature, that while dialogue was good and important, ULFA had not clarified its position. That came later when Rajkhowa, both in his first public appearance in decades after his arrest, declared that he would not hold talks, adding the rider and shaking his handcuffs: “Can one hold talks with handcuffs on?”

But the interviews that really angered me were when the anchors, in two separate channels, declared outrageously that since ULFA was on the backfoot and it never had been trustworthy, wasn’t it time to wipe them out? Why bother about talks at all since they would only use the opportunity to regroup?

At the end of the first interview, I got a call from an editor-friend in Guwahati, “You were visibly annoyed, the anchor was just not prepared to listen to anyone except the sound of his own voice.” Yes, I was angry — not because I felt I had not had a chance to say what I felt. I tried my best, by raising my decibel level, but because the anchor kept hurling his view relentlessly that “these people” should be “finished off”. I completely disagree, in these times, when openness and democracy are imperilled as much by the actions of those who speak in its name, especially in terms of protecting its security, as by those opposed to it. We must exercise restraint, especially at a time of great sensitivity and opportunity.

In a democracy every side has a right to be heard. And you cannot have democracy without transparency or justice. And for those who throw the justice idea back to us, one has to say this too: “Even a murderer has a right to a fair trial: the media cannot be the judge, jury and prosecution.”

That was the sum of my assertions in both interviews; in the second, a retired head of the army staff and a former chief of the Border Security Force were also on the panel. I was interviewed at home because I was recovering from a bad cold. I finally could not contain myself and told the anchor, “Neither you nor anyone in the room has the slightest idea of how bad conditions are in Assam and the North-East; you sit in that studio and talk without knowledge or the ground realities and you try and form public opinion!” There was silence from the others and I realised that my shot had hit home.

In another interview a day later by phone, a breathless interviewer (in this case a woman; the two anchors I have referred to were male) asked me when the talks would begin and started chattering away about what news reports were saying. When I tried to respond, she kept saying, “But, Mr Hazarika, the news reports say…(about possible talks).” I offered to cut the phone connection since I was not being heard; she then agreed.

I talked along the following lines: that I didn’t know on what basis the media reports were saying all this, but we haven’t heard anything from Rajkhowa. Until there’s a statement from him, there really isn’t anything to go on, and the news reports had been consistently wrong: first they say he surrendered, then that he was arrested in Bangladesh, then he was loitering around at the Indo-Bangladesh border (does a wanted and hunted man “loiter” around, waiting to be caught?), then he was secretly transported to Delhi. There was little point in jumping the gun and, if possible, the channels should stop hyperventilating.

Both Rajkhowa’s statement on sovereignty not being negotiable (though the longer he and the other leaders remain in prison and discuss the future among themselves, this may not remain an absolute) and his armed wing chief Paresh Baruah’s declaration from Myanmar buttressing the claim ended the chimera of talks, floated so clumsily by the media catching on to deliberate “leaks” from “security sources”, especially in the Assam Government.

In all this, very few discussions on the television, radio or print news reports that I have seen spoke of the small numbers of ULFA armed cadres, based both in Assam and Myanmar, or even raised it at Press conferences. My understanding is that ULFA has a total of about 450-500 armed fighters; that is not a large number by any means but for a guerrilla group, as is well-known, you do not need large numbers to inflict damage. But can such numbers seize sovereignty or even speak seriously of it? The Naga factions (between the two of them) have nearly 18,000 men and women with arms and they have been at war with India since the 1950s. That is a huge army, in terms of capability, but even they have not worn the Indian State down; rather they are fatigued as are the people.

The Nagas are in a standstill agreement where there is a form of political dialogue and a ceasefire with the government. So, how long does ULFA’s surviving leadership want their armed struggle to continue? How many more innocent and not-so-innocent people — security forces and cadres — must die before the guns fall silent? Because sovereignty from India’s perspective also is non-negotiable and it is no longer ULFA which speaks from a position of strength. But who discusses this outside of the news rooms and studios of the North-eastern media? Certainly not in the metro media.

It is time, considering the rubbish that we have to listen to, day in and day out, the anchors should go back to the science of anchoring: weaving discussions with different viewpoints, bringing the others out and perhaps asserting their own at the end and not hectoring their panelists. All channels, I think, need to conduct an independent review of the performance of their anchors not as far as how they dominate interviews or discussions or how much noise they make but how good are the content of their “shows.”

There you have it — their programmes are shows, as they themselves declaim so often: “Your channel was the first to … and so and so said this first on this show.” Show time is different from news time. It’s not about ethics or balance even: it’s about professionalism. These other qualities will come naturally into an approach that is truly professional.

As far as television reporting is concerned, most reporters don’t even know, it appears, that they have to get other viewpoints apart from that of the main person they have gone to interview. The message is simple: you’re messing up and missing the real stories. Get real and get back to the basics.

{The Tribune, Chandigarh, India}

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