Journalism as Genocide

Journalism as Genocide
The behavior of the Indian media over the past few decades has an eerie similarity to the behaviour of Der Sturmer and Kangura, leading up to the violence, ethnic killings and genocide.  
By Suchitra Vijayan
In its 2003 verdict, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found Rwandan journalists Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza guilty of genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy and crimes against humanity. The case against Nahimana and Barayagwiza, referred to as ‘the Media Trial’ raised important questions regarding the role of the media and their social accountability. In Rwanda for the first time since Nuremberg trials, hate speech was prosecuted as a war crime. The Judgment declared that way the journalists had acted, constituted to what the court considered “Journalism as Genocide”.​
Words can kill
Rwandan cultural anthropologist, Charles Mironko, analyzed confessions of hundreds of genocide perpetrators. His work confirms the thesis that hate messages in media had direct effect on the dehumanization of the population that was subject to persistent slander. Several months of this behavior, in absence of credible reporting, conditioned the population to hate and kill.
A similar line of reasoning by the counts in the Streicher case (from the Nuremberg trials) held that Der Sturmer, a weekly tabloid-format Nazi newspaper, was found to have “injected into the minds of thousands of Germans a poison that caused them to support the National Socialist policy of Jewish persecution and extermination”.
Der Sturmer like Kangura, its Rwandan equivalent, was filled with stories of slander, libel, smear campaign, and fabricated stories. By journalistic standards, both the publications were nothing more than substandard tabloids. Yet, both Der Sturmer and Kangura enjoyed enormous influence and support from leading public figures in various fields, political elites and other popular journalists. Both cultivated powerful patrons and molded their audience into a controllable, incite-able mob of puppets.
 The behavior of the Indian media over the past few decades has an eerie similarity to the behaviour of Der Sturmer and Kangura, leading up to the violence, ethnic killings and genocide.
The 2002 Gujarat Riots and the carnage that followed shed light on the sinister parallels. A study by PUCL in 2002 found that two vernacular newspapers in particular, Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh ran false stories, fabricated sensational headlines with the intention to “provoke, communalize and terrorize people”, which incited and encouraged Hindus to kill Muslims.  Rather than perform the ethical duties that journalism demands, these papers published doctored material without evidence, and furthered arguments that incited violence. Sandesh featured a front-page headline on February 28, 2000 the day after the burning of a train in Godhra,  “70 Hindus burnt alive in Godhra”. Followed by another headline that proclaimed “Khoon Ka Badla Khoon” (Avenge Blood with Blood). Eyewitnesses account from Naroda Patiya, describe mobs carrying weapons and copies of the Sandesh with the headline, “Khoon Ka Badla Khoon.”.
Sandesh published fabricated reports that the breasts of two Hindu women had been sliced off by Muslim mobs. This news report led to sexual violence against muslin women. The editor of the paper stated that this, “information had been provided by the police” and refused to apologize, or print a retraction on the ground that, “it was against the policy of the newspaper to carry out corrections and clarifications for previously published articles.” While the Press Council of India later reprimanded the newspapers, nothing was done to hold these papers accountable. Instead the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi openly praised Sandesh for its work and during the course of events leading up to the Gujarat carnage and in its aftermath, circulation of Sandesh rose considerably due to its pro-Hindutva stand.  Gujarat riots are not an exception; it simply follows the trajectory of hate entrepreneurship practiced by some journalists and the media. It has a genealogy starting from the Jabalpur riots in 1961 to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.
Democratic alibi
French Historian Jean-Pierre Chrétien describes the behavior by journalists in inciting hatred and violence as ‘the democratic alibi’. Democratic alibi divorces the questions of ethics from the political, and it employs the mechanisms of mass conditioning and mobilization required to create group hatred. Democratic alibi is the precondition to riots, lynching, political trials, extrajudicial killings, military occupation and genocidal violence. Its legitimacy lies in the justification of collective violence either by the state or the mob, and begins by creating a killable, dispensable enemy of the state – the “anti national”, “ the secular”, “the other” and “the minority”
An established pattern of presenting and commenting on the news organizes political debate into righteous ardor against individuals and groups that disagrees with the status quo. The targets of violence are marked with precision, taken as public hostages and accused of being enemies of the State. Later they explain what has to be done to this enemy.  Through constant repetition, they construct a political, moral and a historical alibi that eventually becomes the accepted truth.  In this steady journey into the abyss of intolerance, the journalists and news anchors become agents of the State and the annihilators of society. All the ingredients for conditioning a democratic alibi that existed in Nazi Germany and Rwanda exist in India today.
Road Map to Annihilation
Upon analyzing witness testimonies from the Nuremberg, Yugoslavia and Rwanda trials, two things become increasingly clear. First, truthful reporting of facts, analytical investigation of issues, and a stand against violence by journalists in all these instances could have both changed the behavior of the perpetrators, and in some instance even prevented the slaughter. Second, when airwaves become a platform for ideological socio-religious-nationalist populism, there are clear roadmaps with milestones and perfected patterns of hate that lead to eventual violence and destruction of a society.  Some of these milestones were:
1. The justification of massacres, violence and even mob justice against people and social groups because they are seen as “anti-national”, “cockroaches” and “pests”.
2. Defining what constitutes as majority opinion, abandoning pluralism of opinion, and legitimizing the views of the ‘majority people’ in whose name the journalist claim to speak.
3. The rules of criminal procedure are abandoned in favor of a trial by intentions and public opinion in which evidence is falsified, doctored and manipulated.
4. Public shaming, humiliation, administering public mob justice, painful corporal punishment in public, and forcing a group of people to wear identifiable markers.
5. Democratic culture (rule of law, due process, protection of minorities, and social justice) is considered as being ancillary to State power and its interest.
6. Journalistic propaganda constantly retreats to revisionist historical references, often edited to fit the narrative of victimization suffered by the ‘majority’, that demands historical justice for the crimes of the past.
This list holds up a haunting mirror to the ugliness on display in India today and the vileness employed by some News channels, anchors and journalists. It is as much a war over the minds of the people as it is a war to enact extra judicial and un-constitutional laws that encroach into and legislate the private lives of citizens. The absolute essence of this priming is the stamping out of pluralism in all its forms – pluralism of ideas, opinions, faiths, beliefs, memories, myths and even gods.
The reporting and editorializing of communal violence in cases like Gujarat are not isolated. It has to be seen through the editorial narratives broadcast in other incidents like censorship and silencing of author Perumal Murgan, the arrest and custodial treatment of Prof. G.N. Saibaba, the notorious and dubious reporting on “Love Jihad”, the beef politics that lead to the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, the reporting of the death of Rohith Vemula and the JNU crackdown. In all these instances some media commentary choose to perform the function of legitimizing the ideology of the ruling government, its political projects and equated it to Nationalism.
Recently Sudhir Chaudhary, editor, Zee News, in an interview to Outlook magazine stated that: “It has become necessary for media houses to take a stand on certain issues. It has to be a nationalistic approach. That benefits the people of India. What do you call neutral and secular? No one is neutral anymore. I will pitch for a nationalistic reporting, …” He further states, “If you want to live in India and want the breakup of India, then why do you want to live here? Leave the country and go.”
What happens to journalism when it willingly wraps it’s self in a flag? To borrow from Adorno, it facilitates a politics of murder and destruction.
Mr. Chaudhary and many like him hold immense power of persuasion, and present a position of unthinking hawkish nationalism that uncritically propagates a retreat to ​banal patriotism. This excluded the possibility of criticizing the state and it’s political projects. Journalism demands detachment and objectivity that allows for dissent, disagreement and freedom of expression. In absence of such ethics, it clears the ground for violence and does great disservice to the democratic way of life.
While handing down Media Trial judgments, the ICTR rightly criminalized hate speech of a powerful media against a vulnerable minority. The great fight for individual’s humanity against crimes by the State and the journalists who defend it, has to begin with accountability. To rephrase the words from Rwandan journalist Thomas Kamilindi, who testified at the war crimes’ tribunal, how should we hold journalists accountable for their actions, and if need be prosecute them, if they knowingly caused harm, and incited violence. We must find a way to articulate and respond to such abuses of power without violating the principles of freedom, which are an indispensable cornerstone of democracy.
—Suchitra Vijayan is a New York based Barrister, political analyst and a writer. She previously worked for both the War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She is currently working on her first book on the making of India’s political borders.
—A version of this article appeared in