Rohith Vemula Suicide: Meet the Student Brigade Behind the Coverage
Social media is the in thing for causerati in India but even then it is rare for an event away from the national capital to catch the attention of the media and enter the political agenda. Having said that, the suicide of research scholar Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad bucked that trend by dominating the political discourse in the first few days of the Budget session and then getting dovetailed into the related brouhaha at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
How had the suicide of a little-known activist, fighting for an issue in a distant campus become an issue of national concern? How did the mighty TV anchors even think it worthy of their attention? The fact is that players in the Rohith Vemula drama were extremely savvy about using the media, particularly social media, in drawing attention to the event, and to the matrix of social discrimination behind it. Using knowledge gleaned from their own experience and from lectures in their J school classes, a bunch of enthusiastic communication students from the SN School of Media Studies of UoH played a significant behind the scenes.
After news of the suicide broke in the local media, these students quickly gathered their resources and set up a media desk at the protest venue from where they generated social media content, and disseminated it on the internet. And when Big Media converged at the feeding frenzy, they were at hand to supply information and facilitating reportage.
For these students, unlike the pros of the discipline, this was their first taste of real-life journalism. And their intention behind the campaign? "We wanted correct and authentic information to reach the public. And we figured, if we make it simple for the media to get information, it would help them maintain the quality of news," says Avnish Kumar, a member of the desk, final year Mass Communication student
Acting as a bridge between the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of protesting groups and the media, this team of a dozen students did not leave any stone unturned. "There were a number of documents that were released by the JAC everyday. It was up to us to obtain photocopies of these confidential documents and circulate it in the media," says Lalrindiki Sailo,final year Mass Communication student and another member whose days were spent juggling between her department and the makeshift media centre.
Some of the documents disseminated by the media desk triggered important turns in the saga, such as documents from theMinistry of Human Resources Development, Vemula's caste certificate and his mother's letters to the authorities. The feeding of important information into the media systems kept the issue going at points when the media seemed to tire of it.
Apart from providing authentic information to the media, the team decided to clarify the false information regarding Vemula’slife circulating in the local media. "There was an old video of Rohith tearing some political posters that went viral,” says Avnish Kumar. “Only a few of us knew that what was being circulated was only a part of the video and was intended totarnish his reputation. Our job was to counter such false allegations."
However, it wasn’t mainstream media that fuelled the story, it was social media. The team worked on a three-part strategy:Twitter, Facebook and email. Facebook accounts set up by Vemula’s friends were managed and updated, tweets went out at every turn in the story and emails were sent to like-minded individuals and organizations to work up a broad coalition of liberals outraged by the suicide.
And press releases were sent to media houses from a common mail account to keep reporters interested.
The team's training in journalistic practices proved useful. Communiques were phrased and structured in the syntax of reportage and sources were authenticated. "What we aimed for was getting the correct facts. There was absolutely no opinion in our reporting. We left it to the readers to analyse the case," said Nayanthara Rajeev, final year Mass Communication student and another member of the media desk.
The team kept the daily updates going for a month, learning from the experience as well as putting into practice what they had learnt in class. "It was an experience that changed each of us. The most important takeaway for us was the valuable lesson: no information is better than wrong information. We learnt to be accountable for our own statements," said Rajeev.
For Sailo it was a lesson in journalism practice: "When we began we didn’t know how to begin a story from scratch or how to accumulate facts and present them in an articulate manner."
Once the Rohith Vemula issue moved to the capital and flowed into the Kanhaiya Kumar drama, the media desk dissembled and the members went back to their classes and assignments. But the Rohith Vemula episode may yet be remembered as the first instance of a spontaneous social media campaign to sustain an issue in the media. As our campuses become more and more restive, it promises to be the template for similar campaigns.