Nirmal Baba, Wikileaks And Misleading Mainstream Media
By Kumar Anand
19 April, 2012
“Any media organizations, by their very nature, are engaged in the political sphere. So the editors and publishers of media organizations have to sit down at the table with power groups, and they start becoming captured by these power groups.” Julian Assange, in an interview with Russia Today.
Julian Assange is a relevant thinker on information in the present time. Through his writings and his activities at Wikileaks, he has given us a new perspective on the need for transparency in the flow of information. Assange has raised several important questions pertaining to transparency, information, censorship in cyber age, whistleblower protection, human rights protection through uninhibited, uncensored flow of information, among others.
In the process, he has also raised some very relevant and topical questions on the dangerous trend of increasing corporatisation of media and how it affects our understanding of the world and compromises on our human rights. With traditional media failing us, shouldn’t we turn to a more democratic, transparent and unbiased medium of the internet, he asks.
There are several instances where traditional media have failed us under political and/or commercial compulsions. The episode on Nirmal Baba, a fake godman figure who bought TV space to propagate his superstition and fool thousands of his blind followers, is the latest in the series. Because while exposing skewed priorities of news channels, the episode also explains the rise of the internet as a more transparent and a more potent medium of information.
While Nirmal Baba fooled the gullible public, certain news channels went about relaying his paid show without questioning his motives, even after certain websites exposed his misdeeds. A website was even served a legal notice and had to take down the content regarding Nirmal Baba; but other websites did not give up in the quest of exposing the fake Baba.
Taking cues from website exposures, some news channels finally picked up the story. But had it not been for website reports, news channels may have preferred to turn blind eyes on Nirmal Baba.
That brings us to question the compulsion of our newspapers and news channels in promoting superstition via a shady figure like Nirmal Baba. Are our news channels sold out to crooks? Where is our mainstream media headed for?
Now, such incidents show that we have all the reason to distrust our mainstream media. What we receive through our newspapers and news channels are censored, biased information that are mediated by editors who are not necessarily entire unbiased. It is here that Assange’s view on media assumes special significance.
From journalistic point of view, Wikileaks, a new media organization, has published some of the biggest stories of all time, including the Afghan war diaries, the Iraq war logs and Cablegate. Had it not been for the website, the lies surrounding Afghan and Iraq wars could never have come out. Because what came out in the mainstream Western media was a half-lie, half-propaganda stuff, meant only to mislead the viewers.
Wikileaks likes to identify itself as an organization that could stand true to what Assange calls “the principle of good journalism in service of better governance”* —-a principle that he says is missing from traditional media organizations today.
In pursuing “good journalism in service of better governance,” Assange had run-ins with not just governments, powerful individuals and corporates–which was most likely to happen–but also with some powerful media entities including the New York Times and the Guardian among several others.
There may be divided opinions on the validity of a mass medium like Wikileaks. But as an information organization, it strengthens our hope that journalism in the digital era can actually break free from limitations imposed by corporate and government influences and do what is required from it: i.e., to help empower the common man against the misuse of power and authority and help protect human rights by exposing power abuses. In other word, to protect truth an democracy, as it were.
Shouldn’t media organization be answerable to public first, and then to governments, powerful individuals and corporate? What is the validity of a media organization that compromise on its purpose to serve truth and democracy?
Assange’s take on journalism and media organizations from his very special vantage position is valuable. Through his personal experience, he helps us gain an understanding on the stand media takes today vis-à-vis people that it represents, or corporate and government that influence its opinion.
Assange has asked a pertinent question as to how much trust can we put in newspapers that are partisan and news channels that value advertisements more than news? Do our media organizations, through volumes of news stories and commentaries they spin day in and day out, bring us any closer to reality as it exists while at the same time playing to the gallery of powerful? Not necessarily. In fact, in many instances as in Nirmal Baba case, they deviate us from truth.
So what should be the way out of this indirect but potentially dangerous war against transparency and against people’s right to know the truth? Perhaps, and that remains to be seen, digital age could show us the way to establish what Assange calls the “science of journalistic honesty” and help empower people through information.
In his autobiography (Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography), Assange recounts an incident that led to the ‘Collateral Murder’ video that Wikileaks exposed showing American soldiers in Iraq killing civilians including children from Apache helicopters. While researching on the events that led to the assault by American soldiers on Iraqi civilians, Assange says his team came across several misleading, inaccurate news reports surrounding the events following the shootings in some leading media organisations.
The media coverage on the exposure of video that showed two Reuters journalists being killed by the US army was not favourable for the Wikileaks either. In fact, some big, influential news organizations tried to toe the official government line on the issue, which makes Assange comment on the attitude of these organizations. “So puffed up are they with a sense of their own importance that, on seeing the video, the first debate they wanted to have was about our title (Collateral Murder), not about the contents.”
The incident is a reflection on how media power structure could be detrimental to truth and democracy when playing into the hands of abusive power. In yet another instance also taken from his autobiography, Assange says while dealing with the editors and reporters from organizations like the New York Times during the release of Afghan war logs, he experienced “how close American editors are to official government truth. They act pious and make a reckless bid for the high ground, pretending it’s all to do with responsibility and propriety and balance, but in fact they are compromising their journalistic independence at every other turn.”
Editors and influential journalists are vulnerable to selling their integrity off to people in power just in order to enjoy proximity with them. In doing so, they are compromising their journalistic independence and integrity. And this is not the case with Western media alone but with Indian media as well.
With traditional media failing us like this, may be internet will rise up and become a borderless stream of uninhibited, uncensored, and unbiased information. May be this will lead people to make informed decision on who they should vest their power in, and to what effect.
It was not for nothing that Nirmal Baba, who’d influence news channels with his deep pocket, would be exposed by websites before it snowballed into a controversy that few news channels could afford to avoid.
That internet would transform journalism was discussed decades ago. The emergence of Wikileaks has only taken this to a new level.
As internet has grown in power along all these years, so has clamour to strangulate its autonomy through regulations. The move to regulate internet should be construed as an attack by vicious power to overtake our valuable public sphere and should be resisted. Because amidst the failings of mainstream media, internet is only getting stronger in its effort to safeguard truth and democracy. End.
Kumar Anand is a journalist based in New Delhi. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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