Should a newspaper offer its pages to a politician who has been promoting hatred against other Indians on the basis of region and language, and whose followers have assaulted unarmed innocents on that basis?
If that politician uses the space offered to him to justify and further his hate campaign, should the newspaper carry his piece without any strong editorial rebuttal alongside?
Is a political leader entitled to invite to a press conference journalists of his/her choice, based on language/region? In that case, what should be the response of journalists, especially those invited? Should TV cameras telecast incidents of violence during communal riots again and again without specifying that these are file pictures?
Finally, how should the media report on the acts of a politician leading a hate campaign based on region and language?
These questions are difficult to answer, but must at least be faced by the media in the wake of the Raj Thackeray-led agitation in Mumbai, which resulted in two deaths, damage to personal and public property in many parts of the State and thousands of people from UP and Bihar fleeing Maharashtra in fear.
At the height of the campaign, the TOI group's Maharashtra Times, one of the two major Marathi dailies in Mumbai, allowed Raj Thackeray to justify and expand upon his hate campaign in a long piece titled `"My stand, My fight''. The piece, which explained why his men (all from respectable families and excellent professions, he wrote) had "come out on the roads'', was full of references to the "dadagiri and goondagiri'' of UP-Biharwalas, and how it was time to tell them that if they wanted to live in Maharashtra, they had to assimilate. It ended with a call to Marathi-speaking people to join his 'struggle which would eventually be victorious, because no law could stamp out a Marathi mind on fire.''
The following provisions of the IPC automatically apply to the article: Secs 153: wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot, Sec 153 A: promoting enmity between different groups on grounds (here) of place of birth and language; Sec 153 B (b and c) : assertion that any class of persons shall by reason of their being members of any language or regional group be denied or deprived of their rights as citizens of India; and assertion concerning the obligation of any class of persons by reason of their being members of any language or regional group, such assertion causing or being likely to cause disharmony.
The justification in such cases is always that the article was newsworthy. No doubt Maharashtra Times must have sold more copies that day; in fact, the article was blown up into a massive hoarding and put up wherever Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had a branch. The Mumbai Municipal Corporation, so prompt in taking down banners it considers illegal, didn't touch it. In the same way it has always allowed Samajwadi Party chief Abu Asim Azmi to put up giant hoardings of himself all over the road outside his office.
However, it must be said that though Maharashtra Times carried no editorial rebuttal of the piece on the same day, it did carry a signed article by Political Editor Pratap Asbe critically analysing the political motives of the agitation. The next day, editor Bharat Kumar Raut also wrote a piece on the agitation, pointing out that it wasn't likely to help the cause of Maharashtrians for they themselves were to blame for the decline of their culture. Both pieces were written in a reasonable tone, putting forward arguments on migration, cultural habits, etc. Both made it clear that beating up poor people was futile, but did not condemn it in strong terms. Nor did they criticise the agitation as unconstitutional. Raut in fact stated that Raj Thackeray's motives were genuine.
So the question remains: should Maharashtra Times have given its pages to Raj Thackeray? Incidentally, after the piece, it also carried cartoons by Raj Thackeray. What would have happened if it had said No to him? Would he have approached the Indian Express Marathi newspaper Loksatta, whose editor Kumar Ketkar had already criticised the agitation on TV? Or would he have gone to town saying Marathi newspapers were also victims of the North Indians' dadagiri?
Raj Thackeray's decision to exclude all Hindi and English journalists from his press conference was a shocker. The Network of Women in the Media issued a statement condemning it. But Raj's reasons for excluding Hindi channels could not be faulted: the anchors had forgotten their professional roles and were passing judgment on him, he alleged.
That's what news anchors seem to be doing all the time, anyway, be they Hindi or English. In this case, the channels were also repeatedly showing clips of violence against North Indians without specifying that these were file clips. However, it wasn't as if the violence against North Indians had died down and the channels, by repeating old clips, were trying to inflame passions. They had managed to get only a few fresh clips, and relied on old ones to convey the essence of the agitation: violence against helpless people. Had it not been for this constant replay, many Marathi-speaking people might not have got totally disgusted by the agitation.
Was Raj Thackeray within his rights to exclude the Hindi and English media from his press conference? As the head of a registered political party that fought elections he has sworn to uphold secularism. However, when his politics consists of propagating hatred and resentment and justifying violence against fellow citizens, excluding sections of the media from his press conference, based solely on their language, seems but part of it. What should these sections have done? Ignored him and deprived their readers of news? Go to the press conference anyway despite the ban and disseminate the poison emanating from him? They chose the latter.
The ethical thing for the media would have been to remain united, with the Marathi media telling Raj Thackeray that either he should address all of them or none. Apart from forcing Raj Thackeray to invite everyone, such a stand would have created history. But of course that could never happen. Politicians who heap venom on other Indians are often media darlings. Without the media's help, Bal Thackeray wouldn't ever have become the "Tiger'' (the media now refers to the man whose utterances instigated the killing of hundreds of Muslims in 92-93, not counting the killings in the 1984 Bhiwandi-Thane-Mumbai riots, as the "ageing mellowed tiger'') - and that includes the English press. Where would the architect of the Rath Yatra that left a trail of blood all through India be without the national press? Most recently, would Narendra Modi have reached his iconic status without some sections of the media?
In Raj Thackeray's case too, whom the Marathi media refers to as "saheb'' as they do his uncle, Maharashtra Times reporters wrote in a light-hearted manner about the merry chase he led them from Mumbai to Pune, stopping on the way to buy them vadas. During the height of the Ramesh Kini scandal in 96-97, society pages of leading English newspapers were describing Raj as the life of the party. (Ramesh Kini, a Mumbai tenant who refused to vacate his flat, was found dead a day after he left home saying he was going to answer a summons from the Saamna office. His widow accused Raj of having a hand in her husband's death. The CBI did not include Raj in its charge sheet.)
This time, he's gone great guns about Marathi culture. It needs a Nikhil Wagle or a Kumar Ketkar to show him up for what he is. The average journalist is hardly likely to do that.