The land grave of Assam CM? When social media abused and shamed the top editors’ silence
From Nava Thakuria *
Public reactions to a news item in a newspaper or news channel may be common in India, but public outrage on digital platforms against the mainstream media for not addressing a particular topic is definitely an uncommon phenomenon. The Far Eastern Indian state of Assam saw such public anger against some of the editors and journalists for avoiding the press conferences of opposition political parties targeting the head of state over alleged land fraud against his family.
The organized public turmoil in the alternative media was so intense that the prominent editors and journalists of Assam did not dare to clarify their positions. They preferred to avoid the debates that kill time. Terrifyingly, no media worker outfit, no civil society groups or readers and viewers defended the otherwise glamorous editor-journalists when they were confronted with the allegedly abusive social media posts for days.
Assam, with a population of over 30 million, supports over 30 daily morning newspapers in various languages as well as a large number of Assamese magazines and journals. Guwahati is also home to eight satellite news channels (most of which are free to air) with hundreds of news portals. Their cumulative high quality readership (and viewership) may reach 3.5 million, but the number of social media users in the state should exceed 4.5 million.
The controversy began with a groundbreaking (and lengthy) piece of news published in TheWire and TheCrosscurrent in the first week of December 2021, in which both digital media reported a land grab fraud against the family of President Himanta Biswa Sarma. claimed. The content suggested that a real estate company founded by the saffron leader’s wife illegally occupied around 18 acres of government land reserved for landless farmers.
Based on specific media content, three political parties, namely Asom Jatiya Parishad, Raijor Dol and Congress, had organized separate press conferences calling for a proper investigation into the alleged land fraud by the CM’s family. For reasons best known to the editors and journalists of the Guwahati-based newspapers and news networks, they did not cover the subject and simply killed the news.
The subject should of course have died after a while. But in the morning hours of December 9th, sudden bursts of anti-media posts appeared on the digital platforms. For almost three days, most editors were named and embarrassed for staying silent on Sarma’s land grab problem on social media. Logos and photos of some of the news channel’s prominent journalists have been made viral with insulting words.
Soon the country’s Legislative Assembly began its winter session on December 20th and, as usual, the first day’s trial was suspended by opposition lawmakers over the matter. They wanted the meeting to discuss it, but Spokesman Biswajit Daimary would not allow it. Later the opposition MLAs staged a strike in protest. But shockingly, most newspapers and news networks did not get the news prominently.
The President of the Assam Congress, Bhupen Bora, urged Sarma to clarify his position on the matter. All opposition political leaders called for an investigation into the alleged land grab by CM’s family by the Directorate of Enforcement and the Central Bureau of Investigation. They alleged that Sarma gave 18 acres of government land worth several million rupees to his family members without abiding by any rules.
India’s oldest party also organized a press conference in New Delhi at which senior congress leaders Gaurav Vallabh, Jitendra Singh, Ripun Bora and Gaurav Gogoi alleged that Sarma had overridden all rules to offer government land to his family. This time the issue was covered by most of the metro-based morning papers nationwide. At least two news outlets also covered the event.
Congress leaders (where Bora and Gogoi were from Assam) claimed that all illegal land transfers to the affected group must be canceled and that alternative land should be offered to disadvantaged landless families. CM Sarma has not yet clarified his position on the matter, only alleging that the digital media company concerned is left-wing (read anti-BJP).
The reluctance of the majority of Guwahati-based mainstream media outlets to cover such topics can be guessed from their reliance on government advertising revenues for survival. You have faced a major financial crisis recently since Covid-19 hit the country. The pandemic resulted in abrupt loss of circulation for newspapers and also in commercial ad revenue. The news channels have also drastically lost their viewer quality.
As a result, most newspaper companies today cannot act against government policies, even if it is necessary to maintain their credibility. So they slowly emerged as the official organs of the ruling party (read the aggressive Prime Minister). They are not even confident that they will receive adequate assistance in need from their esteemed readers across the state.
But the question that arises is, why should readers believe in these media when most of them run their media businesses out of selfish interests only? They have made a habit of creating messages out of nothing, even if doing so can lead to character assassination of many people. In addition, when those concerned try to clarify their positions, the publisher-owners prefer to ignore their views as if the media brotherhood were not responsible.
The personal corruption of some well-known editors also complicated the situation in which public benevolence towards the media brotherhood continued to decline. A senior Assamese journalist who has been in the profession for more than three decades recently published a sensational social media post claiming that at least seven editors (from city news networks) were more fortunate than they were with theirs Could earn work legally.
Speaking to this writer to endorse the post, Dipankar Devsarmah lamented that the media industry has lost credibility (which is still left) due to some greedy publisher media owners. Regarding the naming of the editors in the post, Devsarmah claims that this may be awkward for many, but it is true. He even stated in the post that all details about the real estate and luxury vehicles of the said editors were with him and would make them public in an emergency.
Motivated news is synonymous for many Assam media outlets. Readers-viewers could remember that in March 2020, a dramatic piece of news was circulated in Guwahati-based newspapers and news networks telling a fake story about an outgoing secretary of a journalists’ club who burned many documents. Amazingly, the concerned secretary was present at the so-called cremation, but no reporter dared to ask him for reactions (they definitely knew it was a fake).
Probably the reader-viewers did not believe in the content either. So, even after it was published by most of the Guwahati newspapers and news networks, the secretary never faced a single question as he prowled a crowded city market the next morning. His relatives, friends and well-wishers did not care. So of course the problem died. Even so, the media tried to defame him. The question now arises, whether a seasoned journalist who can be targeted by the media in this way would spare an ordinary citizen!
* Senior journalist based in Assam