SHREYA BANSAL | 23 JULY, 2021
‘We have forced the mainstream media to talk about our struggles’
A farmer from Punjab, Navreet Sivia, launched the news channel Akhar on YouTube in May 2020 with the help of a loan. Starting off, the channel didn’t have many viewers. As the farmer protest swelled in November last year, the platform dedicated itself to covering the agitating farmers’ issues.
Today the channel’s reportage of the eight-month long rebellion has made Akhar one of the most popular news outlets in Punjab.
Unlike other mainstream news channels it never covered a celebrity or leader on its platform, says Sivia. “We only showed the farmers on our channel and raised their voice.”
“Land comes first for us. If we lose our land then we won’t have a channel,” he added.
The independent channel started growing in popularity as its content began to counter the national media’s coverage of the movement. The media was showing them in a negative light, says Sivia.
“We started talking to the youth who came to see the farmers’ protest and asked them what they thought about the agitation. They always spoke in the farmers’ favour and that made us viral.”
Described as a Punjabi lifestyle channel, it works with just a six-person team and has garnered over 7 crore views on YouTube.
“If people don’t watch our channel after this is over, we won’t care. Many people, including my relatives, have sacrificed their life in this agitation. If the channel doesn’t work out we will go back to farming, but the agitation is the most important,” Sivia tells The Citizen.
At the Tikri border, protesting farmers spend the day reading their own news
The farmers encamped at Delhi’s borders began their march to the capital on November 25 last year, in protest against the Union government and the three agricultural ‘black laws’ that it pushed through Parliament. The farmers maintain that the laws will lead to the cancelling of the MSP (minimum support price) price floor intermittently guaranteed by the state, and the price of their crops will be controlled by big corporates.
As the protest grew it became obvious that there was a gap between the reality of the farmers’ problems and demands, and the narrative being constructed by the national media, especially TV channels, according to Sukumar Muralidharan, former journalist and professor at Jindal Global University.
“But this time the small media of the farmers were able to drown out the narrative of the TV media.”
Social media platforms have also played a huge role in the movement through the power of the hashtag. Social media which is otherwise very disorganised is able to mobilise mass support by sharing hashtags, Muralidharan observed. Some of the trending hashtags during the farmers protest have been #FarmersProtest, #standwithfarmerschallenge, #SpeakUpForFarmers, #iamwithfarmers, #kisanektazindabaad, #isupportfarmers and many others.
Tractor2Twitter, now an essential page for following the movement with over 50,000 followers, started off as another hashtag to campaign for farmers on Twitter. “We wanted to show that the farmers who are fighting on ground as also take their resistance to Twitter,” said Bhavjit Singh, one of the founders of Tractor2Twitter. “We also wanted to challenge the national media who was spreading fake news about the movement.”
Tractor2Twitter has used the platform as an informal referendum, according to Singh. The handle would initially just reply to certain news channels’ claims on their broadcasts, but later began creating their own content in the form of articles and videos. Within the first month they were getting over a million impressions.
The 10-person team working the page has no journalism experience. It consists of IT professionals, dentists, farmers, teachers, entrepreneurs and musicians. “We think god chose us to do this work and create this platform for the protest,” said Singh, 34.
Apart from the core team, the media outlet mainly depends on its followers for news tips and content. “Our biggest strength is our followers. They contribute to our platform and counter narratives against us,” Singh told The Citizen.
Many celebrities and activists worldwide have also come out in support of the farmers’ movement thanks to social media, and have been slammed by the Union government for it.
After pop icon Rihanna, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and lawyer-author Meena Harris, niece of US vice-president Kamala Harris, spoke out on the farmer protests, the Indian foreign ministry lashed out, calling their comments “neither accurate nor responsible”. These internationally famous individuals were able to garner worldwide support for the farmers’ movement on social media.
Women and their issues are at the centre of the farmers’ protest
As the agitation grew to historic proportions and people started settling at the protest sites of Tikri and Singhu at the Delhi border, there was a need to report stories from the ground. Trolley Times, a print publication became one such means to tell stories of the farmers, by the farmers.
“We are documenting voices from the ground in their own words,” said Jasdeep Singh, an editor at Trolley Times.
The newspaper has covered the agitation at length, right from the beginning. They have profiled farmers, covered daily events at the protest site, gone in search of people’s problems to share and have given special importance to women’s issues in the agitation, according to Singh.
Most of the team members at Trolley Times, including amateur writers, activists, artists, are not from a journalist background. “Nobody is paid on the team, we are just doing ‘Kar Seva’ by contributing through our labour,” he smiles.
The publication is circulated free at the Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur border sites. Some copies also reach areas in Punjab. A weekly newsletter, it mainly runs on donations from readers and supporters. It is also a web publication now, with a huge social media following on Facebook and Instagram.
“When you cover the stories of an ordinary farmer, then only people will know what struggle does a normal person faces. Trolley Times became a voice for that,” says Nirvair Malvi, one of the writers.
Malvi like many other protestors lives at the Tikri border site. He spends time with other farmers and reports on their daily struggles. “It’s my duty to voice their fight.”
He says that if someday there is a delay in Trolley Times being circulated, people reach their office at pillar number 789 at the Tikri border to get their copies.
“People believe it is their own newspaper, telling their story. That is why they appreciate and motivate us to write and cover more stories from the protest,” says Malvi.
“People also send in their articles and poems to us that we print, they truly see themselves in the newspaper.”
According to Singh, Trolley Times has been especially helpful for elderly protestors who are not equipped with phones and are unfamiliar with social media. “But they can now read this newspaper,” he points out.
Almost every protestor present at the Tikri site reads Trolley Times.
“If the mainstream media had done its job then we would not have needed a media of our own—but they did not do their job properly,” said Surender Dalal, a protester who works as a teacher in a government school.
“They spread negativity about a community that feeds them. It’s shameful,” says Dalal. “They have humiliated themselves by spreading wrong news about us.”
There are also protestors here who won’t let certain news channels report on the protest. “We sent back a reporter when we found out she was from Aaj Tak,” says Dalal. “They don’t come here anymore, they are scared.”
The national media has played the role of being “pro-BJP and anti-farmers during the entire coverage of the farmers’ protest,” says Rajinder Singh, leader of the Sayunkt Kisan Morcha.
“But this is the first time that Godi Media has been unable to set its anti-people narrative,” he added.
Godi or lapdog Media is a term popularised by journalist Ravish Kumar to refer to embedded or controlled media channels perceived as biased toward the government or RSS/BJP. The term is also popular amongst the protestors here.
On December 3 and 5, the Union government held its first and second round of talks with the farmers but the meetings remained inconclusive. Farmer leaders also rejected the government proposal to amend the three laws, and decided to further intensify their agitation until the laws are repealed.
Protesting farmers have been camping at Delhi borders for eight months and have suffered over 500 deaths
Young people have played an important role in spreading news about the protest on social media. “The main reason for that is their frustration with an economic crisis and unemployment in Punjab. They want to save their land and fight for the only source of income,” says Rajinder Singh. “In order to share the struggle with the rest of the country they widely shared positive news of the protest.”
A major moment in the protest was the arrest of youth, Dalit labour activist Nodeep Kaur by Sonepat police in BJP-governed Haryana on charges of attempt to murder, rioting, and assault to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty under the Indian Penal Code.
Kaur, a member of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan, said she had been “targeted and falsely implicated” in the case as she was successful in generating massive support for the ongoing movement.
Two other youth, Sahildeep Singh, 24 and Mandeep Singh, 28 started another YouTube news channel called Duniya or world, inspired by the struggle of the farmers and young protestors.
They met each other for the first time during the protest and decided to launch a news channel dedicated to the movement.
“This is a blessing of the farmers’ protest that we have a news channel,” says Mandeep Singh. “If the farmers’ movement did not exist, many people like us would not have any media channel.”
The five-month old Punjabi language channel has about 70,000 views on YouTube so far.
“We saw that even though the government’s agricultural laws are against the farmers, the mainstream media is still showing the centre in a positive light and the protests in a bad light. This was wrong,” said Sahildeep Singh.
“Our journalism is pro-people and pro-farmers,” he added.
The two-person team at Duniya uses just their phones to shoot, report, record and edit videos.
“People have lost faith in the mainstream media, so people don’t like them anymore,” Mandeep Singh explains. “What they are showing in their studios is absolutely wrong.”
According to Sukumar Muralidharan, “For the longest time traditional media has pretended to be objective but they all present their version of the world view. Our newsrooms have been dominated by an upper-caste majority and the place for minorities has been very marginal.”
“Mainstream media will have to make a choice to adapt to the standards of social media and let go of the traditional journalistic function or they are going to finish,” he adds.
Another channel, Kisan Ekta Morcha, grew out of the farmers’ need to oppose the negative narrative of mainstream national media. KEM is the official media handle of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella union for the farmers’ protest.
“One month into the protest, Zee News played a primetime show on the farmers’ agitation where they portrayed the farmers as Khalistani,” says Baljit Singh, 30. “When I saw that show, I decided that we need to reply to these channels. So I founded KEM.”
The media platform calls itself the “IT cell of the farmers’ movement.”
They counter fake news and rumours about the movement on their Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube pages. “We were directly replying to PM Modi’s speeches through videos. Our video instantly got viral,” says Singh.
The page runs on a volunteer basis with no monetisation on any of its pages. “Our motive is very clear, we only want to focus on the protest. We are doing this for a good cause,” says Singh.
“Our fight is against the corporates who are destroying the agrarian business, so by taking ads we don’t want to submit these industries in any way,” he explains.
Over 500 farmers have lost their lives in the movement that has been termed as the largest protest in human history, according to a KEM tweet.
Twelve major opposition parties, including the Congress, Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, and DMK have extended their support the farmers movement.
A joint statement issued by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former prime minister H.D Deve Gowda, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, and chief ministers Mamata Banerjee, Uddhav Thackeray, M.K Stalin and Hemant Soren said the Union government must resume talks with farmer leaders and repeal the three farm laws.
Other signatories to the joint statement include former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah (JKPA) and Akhilesh Yadav (SP) besides Tejashwi Yadav (RJD), D Raja (CPI) and Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M).
“We extend our support to the call given by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha to observe a countrywide protest day on May 26 marking the completion of six months of the heroic peaceful Kisan struggle," the statement said.
“The Central Government must stop being obdurate and immediately resume talks with SKM on these lines,” it added.
23 year old student activist Harveer Kaur has been camping at the protest site with her family
“If people truly understand the laws and try to know our struggle, they will know how harmful these three agricultural laws are,” said Jagvir Kaur, a 31 year old political activist.
“People need to understand that they cannot consume what godi media is showing without thinking,” she added. “They blindly trust the media, they don’t even know about the ground reality.”
“The media keeps labelling us as ‘Congressi’ and ‘Naxali.’ They should have instead talked about the farmers’ protest,” says Harveer Kaur, a 23 year old youth activist.
“Our small media has even forced the mainstream media to talk about our struggles,” she adds.