Hamstrung by the absence of a professional cadre of journalists, caught between the pincer of commercial interests, caste affiliations and other societal pressures, Mirzapur's media is all largely about clout, status and vested interests and marginally about being a catalyst for change. All this affects the credibility of the media and reduces its impact.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for the limited influence of the grassroots media is the quality of journalists who man the ranks. The core of any newspapers localization strategy is the use of the part-time stringer who often starts his career as a circulation agent and incidentally also files news. The fact that such a person does not have to be trained or paid an acceptable journalistic remuneration on the one hand certainly makes the operation viable for the newspaper, but on the other hand it reduces the credibility of the publication he works for. A large publication like the Dainik Jagran or the Hindustan may have anywhere from 200 to 1000 stringers in a state, depending on how many editions it publishes. These stringers then are responsible for transmitting news from qasbahs and mohallas and for placing many inaccessible villages and block headquarters irrevocably on Indias news map.
Ram Murthy Pandey, who lives in Halliya has been reporting for Hindustan published from Varanasi and heads its bureau at Mirzapur. A stinger for 11 years he has been the president of the Halliya and the Lalganj block units of the Congress (I). Shashi Bhushan Dubey doubles as a stringer and a circulation agent for Aaj at Lalganj in Mirzapur. He has been working with the print media for the last twenty-five years.
Not only do stringers produce mountains of local news, consequential or otherwise, they also collect local advertising which pays for the local edition's cost to some degree. Obviously this role constricts a media practioners independence. Pandey who collects advertisements for Aaj says candidly: "I cannot take a stand against either the government or the trading community, " Jayaswal mourns that the catalyst role normally attributed to journalists is being frittered away because of the policy of newspapers to make local stringers responsible for collecting advertisements. So the profession attracts those who are more interested in getting the commission that comes along with each advertisement than in reporting and analyzing news which could positively impact local development. Ojha admits that the income from advertising is an important attraction in becoming a stringer. Each advertisement translates to a commission of five to ten percent of the booking which supplements the low income of stringers.
Journalists also face social pressures that hampers professional functioning. For example, reporting on the issue of child labour in the carpet weaving industry, as a caste Hindu, Jayaswal says he faced social boycott from his family and friends. To curtail his reporting rich landlords as well as the erstwhile owners of large carpet-making units initially tried to buy him off but when that failed goondas were sent to beat him up. In time, as attention and donor funds were channelised, the local district and state-level functionaries were more supportive of the efforts of activists and journalists alike. Pandey says he, too, has faced an embargo, sometimes by the government and sometimes by powerful people who were offended by his reports.
Another obstacle to objective reporting is caste affiliations. Pandey, a Brahmin, says that after the land reforms were enacted in this area the Patel community became extremely powerful locally. "More in number, they have easily got control over the land here. We, Brahmins have to fight to defend our honour and dignity which these fellows are bent on ravaging. They have been troubling us for quite some time now in this part of Halliya. Being a correspondent allows me to contain their oppression."
Shamshad Khan, Secretary, CREDA (Child Rights, Education and Developmental Action) Mirzapur says, sometimes journalists tend to ignore issues not only because of caste affiliations but because they fear alienating the local bureaucracy and elite from whom they require both favours and information or stories. "In most local bureaus, there are linkages--- friendships and relationships--- between such unlawful actors and the bureau heads. "News coverage that is uncomfortable to the elite, if made at all in the first place, is suppressed at the bureau-level itself. " At the local level, it becomes difficult to report on serious issues of development due to a pressure from within the social group that stringers belong to, such as caste. "So Dalits, land reforms and human rights are issues which are not covered at all since the stringers and the exploiters belong to the same caste.
Most stringers in Mirzapur belong to the Brahmin community as does most of the land mafia. The alignment of local correspondents and stringers in the social system creates a systematic 'fear-and-favour' syndrome. In such a situation the advice of the elite towards correspondents, or anyone in a position to challenge the status quo, is: 'Hum tumhara dhyaan rakhenge, tum kachare mein kyon padhate ho, and hum tumhe khush rakhenge. (We will look after you.) The combination of dhyaan and khush is enough to silence any potential stringer, not by tactics of coercion but by acquiescence.
Often the media lacks professional judgment. It takes the lead from the establishment without really delving into an issue. For example, Santosh Srivastav, a correspondent for the Press Trust of India in Mirzapur, says the identity of the Kol tribes in this locality, especially in Halliya, has been getting sharper. This identity-formation directly links with the growth and spread of Naxalism in this area. However, the police and the bureaucracy insist on referring to the Naxal problem as a 'law-and-order' issue rather than a development problem and the local media follows suit. So incidents such as Khoradi incident where Naxals looted 16 self-loading rifles get sensationalized. " More sympathetic coverage happens only after cases such as the Bhowanipur incident where sixteen tribals were killed in a police encounter.
To be fair both journalists and those who read newspapers at the block and district level are conscious of development issues, perhaps more so then their metro counterparts. They know fully well that these issues that affect the quality of rural life and governance. But how narrowly or broadly or how radically the term development is defined varies from journalist to stringer, stringer to stringer, from one government functionary to another, and from one reader to another. Development is not simply about schemes and infrastructure, says Srivastav it is also about people's struggles, about people's lives and organization. Reporting on them often requires a sensitivity that stringers do not always possess. And it is not just sensitivity, both their vulnerable economic position and their social background combine to make stringers non-confrontational if not status quo-ist.
For Jayaswal coverage of development news is multi-dimensional. It refers to aspects as DIVerse as changes in the mode of transport to better conservation of land, water, forest and other natural resources, to health and education schemes of the state, to local small-scale as well as large-scale industrial production. It also refers to the regular contests and negotiations that are attendant upon inDIVidual news events, such as trade unionization, struggles for land rights and patta, and against unfair and unjust practices by owners of stone quarries and carpet-making units relating specifically to wages.
He is enthusiastic about the way development news coverage takes up issues of social and economic exploitation. He said the Hindi-speaking print media was significantly responsible for exposing cases of bonded labour, including child labour in the carpet industry, their working conditions, the poor wage payments, and physical and mental trauma and torture that women and children particularly had to undergo, especially in geographically remote and economically isolated tribal-dominated blocks such as Halliya. According to him, it was the print media that formulated the now well-established proposition that the carpet industry produces an army of uneducated people.
Others like Pandey take a somewhat narrower view. Speaking like a hardened hack, Pandey says he tries to highlight problems of the region, while simultaneously ensuring that reader interest is maintained. "A good story is typically about problems facing rural people. This will include stories about hand pumps that have been fallen into disrepair, about food stocks that have somehow found their way out of the public distribution system and into the market, and other news of corruption involving local officials. But I think highlighting issues of corruption and unsatisfactory development is important for people to become aware of. But any further analysis than this is frankly unnecessary since readers lose interest."
Siddhanath Singh, stringer for Jagran in Kalhat Bazaar, says that he sees the primary task of a reporter like himself being that of drawing attention to issues that affect people, to developmental infrastructure that is no longer being used, and to government bureaucracy that is corrupt if not incompetent. He adds that it is also essential for development reporting to inform people through the newspapers about different welfare schemes that are announced. "We find news related to with Panchayati Raj Institutions to be particularly useful. People are very keen to know about these. I think that is due to the new-found 'power' that at least some people have got (after the 73rd Amendment), and everyone wants to know how to use it."