Media barbs puncture Anna Hazare anti-corruption campaign

NEW DELHI Wed Aug 1, 2012 8:29pm IST

A supporter waves a flag containing a portrait of veteran social activist Anna Hazare (top), during a protest in New Delhi July 25, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

A supporter waves a flag containing a portrait of veteran social activist Anna Hazare (top), during a protest in New Delhi July 25, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A renewed push by anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare has been overshadowed by a row with the increasingly powerful media, which could weaken the veteran activist's position as he prepares for another showdown with the government.

Hazare began another public hunger strike in New Delhi on Sunday to put pressure on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to pass a long-delayed bill to create an anti-graft ombudsman during the parliament session that starts next week.

But as his followers gathered at a rain-sodden protest ground in Delhi, they turned their fire on India's 24/7 news channels and newspapers, accusing them of turning their backs on a movement they once feted. Scuffles broke out twice in three days, and journalists were heckled by the crowd, prompting Hazare to issue a public apology.

"That is typical of the Indian media," said political analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. "They first turn ordinary people into heroes and then say these heroes have feet of clay."

A weakened Hazare suits Singh's government, which lost much political capital and public support while trying to quell last year's protests, and saw parliament repeatedly shut down over corruption rows.

Finally bowing to Hazare's demands, the government had agreed to introduce the ombudsman bill -- known as the Lokpal -- into parliament. But the Rajya Sabha has not passed the law, and Hazare's supporters have accused the government of dragging its feet.

Singh needs all the political goodwill he can muster to pass a slew of pending reforms, such as raising diesel prices and opening India's supermarket sector to foreign chains, to revive economic growth that has slowed to its worse pace in nine years.

"Anna's supporters have realised that the movement is losing steam, so they are taking it out on the media," said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.

"Initially the government was scared. Now that they have realised that the movement is fizzling out, they would be even more defiant in not passing the Lokpal."

"MEDIA CREATION"

This time last year, Hazare, dressed in a simple white cap and flashing a benevolent smile, drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets to back his campaign, tapping into widespread voter anger over a series of corruption scandals.

Supporters championed him as a 21st century Mahatma Gandhi, who could bring the Congress party-led government to its knees.

But although the 75-year-old campaigner's ascetic style and fasts were a throwback to Gandhi's campaign for independence, it was the relentless coverage by Indian news channels, as well as Twitter and Facebook, that helped the movement flourish.

Once reliant on a solitary state-run broadcaster, India now has dozens of 24-hour news stations in English, Hindi and regional languages, catering to a fast-growing middle class born of two decades of rapid economic growth.

The media had put Hazare on too high a pedestal as they got caught up in the euphoria and ignored the less savoury qualities of Hazare's movement, analysts and commentators say.

Some have called Hazare's campaign undemocratic, using fasts as a way of emotionally blackmailing the government into passing legislation. Others have criticised Hazare's occasionally strident tone, such as when he suggested that drunkards be publicly flogged.

Hazare's supporters have accused the media of running a smear campaign, of exaggerating the movement's problems and deliberately downplaying the turnout for this week's protests.

Kiran Bedi, a former police officer who is one of the campaign's most famous faces, questioned why the media had not reported what Hazare's team said was evidence of corruption against 15 ministers in Singh's cabinet.

"Whatever the media did in the past was their decision and whatever they are doing now is also their decision," Bedi told Reuters via text message.

"But we were informed by some media persons that they are under pressure to minimise their reporting. I have no independent confirmation of this."

There has also been widespread coverage by newspapers and TV channels of what appeared to be infighting among leading figures in the anti-corruption movement.

"Anna Hazare is a media creation," said N. Bhaskara Rao, social researcher and chairman of independent think-tank Centre for Media Studies. The campaign "wanted the media to be their bandwagon, not their watchdog," he added.

To be sure, momentum for Hazare's movement has ebbed and flowed, and it is too early to say whether the recent negative headlines are an accurate reflection of the public mood. No one could rule out a sudden surge in support against a government whose popularity has sunk amid a series of scandals, high inflation and slowing growth.

Despite heavy monsoon showers, protesters have come to Jantar Mantar, a Mughal-era observatory in Delhi that doubles up as a protest site for all manner of causes, to support Hazare as sits on a stage this week, listening to speeches and songs.

The scenes are reminiscent of last year's demonstrations, although the crowds numbered at about 5,000 people, compared to the 60,000 that had gathered last year at a bigger site in the capital, and who inspired protests in other cities.

(Additional reporting by Annie Banerji; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Jeremy Laurence)

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