Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Third Law #7: #ISupportCTC - When FB behaved more ethical than media

It's time for me to feel, personally, happy, and share the pride to be a volunteer. It was actually, this army of selfless and socially responsible people who came to rescue when a crew of their kind was falsely implicated by the self proclaimed, neutral, unbiased and all other adjectives that mean neither left nor right, 'Fourth Pillar'.

When most of the visual media houses and the government were making allegations against Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) for the loss of lives in the Theni mountain fire disaster, social media was flooded with 'n' number of posts and testimonials supporting the club and volunteers who fell victim at Kurangani.

Since Sunday, when the news broke, there were a lot of allegations against CTC for misleading trekkers-volunteers and making them walk into a calamity. However, people presently volunteering with and associated in the past with CTC, which has over 40,000 volunteers across the State, and volunteers from other organisations were trending #ISupportCTC on Twitter and Facebook. In their posts and photos, the volunteers, most of them youth, elaborated on how CTC has organised progarmmes in the past and what were the initiatives they have taken so far to protect the environment.

A friend of mine, Gowtham Gunasekaran, who volunteers along with me for an education-based NGO, Bhumi, that sets up after-school community centres in poor neighbourhoods of the city, wrote, "When we started after-school learning centres in the Srinivasapuram area, in Pattinapakkam locality, we could see the development works done by CTC in the neighbourhood and their work towards a plastic-less community and their goal towards waste management. The people over there do not even know who they were but they were welcoming their work and were supporting them to achieve their goal.

"CTC is not only a trekking club, but they are also one among us who really wanted to bring some change for the next generation. My request for the #TRP_Media is to focus on the reason and rehabilitation of the nature we lost. But not framing some false accusation to increase your market. #ISupportCTC."

While another volunteer, Shakira Banu, wrote, "It was a bad day. It was an accident. Stop blaming them. #ISupportCTC."

When I had a word with one of the trekkers and volunteers I know, Raghu, he said, "It is a well-known fact that Kurangani does not need any special permission to trek. Stories appearing on TV channels seem to be totally twisted and cooked up."

It is to be noted that, CTC organises not only treks on mountain ranges, but they also pick up the garbage dumped on the hills, littered by travellers and tourists. People who litter the mountains leave a lot of hazardous waste like plastic covers, broken liquor bottles, leftover food and camp materials. Volunteers of organisations like CTC undertake clean-up drives during their treks and keep the forest ecosystem safe for wild animals.

Permission availed

Putting an end to the accusations by the Theni district administration - claiming that the trekkers did not receive permission to enter the forest - the statement of Prabhu, one of the survivors of the forest fire, has given a twist to the story. According to Prabhu's statement to the Theni police, 'We had paid Rs.200 per head at the check-post on the foothills of Kurangani to enter the forest.'

Prabhu also had said that the trekkers who survived along with him ran in the opposite direction of the fire, on the instructions of their guide. But others, confused and scared, scattered in all directions and so got caught in the fire.

Greens worried

The Kerala and Karnataka governments have reportedly banned trekking in the mountain ranges situated in their jurisdiction. However, the announcement has already initiated a debate among ecologists in town.

Raveendran Natarajan, president of Iragukal Naturalist and Conservation group, said, "The after-effects of this is going to be worse. Due to this accident, the government has banned trekking and brought up restrictions. So, nature lovers cleaning up the hill routes dumped with plastic and bottles will not be allowed into the forests. In the distant future, we are going to totally lose a forest environment."

I have to question the habit of lakhs of people visiting hills like Sabarimalai, Sathuragiri and Vellaiangiri every year. Even they have faced accidents, mishaps and tragic deaths. Can the government or court that restrict nature lovers, stop them?

A Mystery Solved

The beach house of CTC, located at Palavakkam was allegedly vacated by members of the organisation Sunday when news about the forest fire incident broke. At the time TV channels claimed that the founder of CTC, Peter Van Geit, had vacated the house overnight and went into hiding. However, volunteers of CTC deny both allegations.

"Peter does not need to hide anywhere. It is very transparent in our events calendar that CTC has scheduled a 150K run from Chennai to Auroville from 9-11 March. Peter and volunteers of CTC are actually there in Auroville today," Srinivasan, a former volunteer said.

The house-for-rent announcement Peter made on Facebook, posted on 21 January this year.

When asked about the beach house, he said, "The house is not in use and was vacated long back. Peter is already looking to let it out. He posted a To-Let on Facebook."

Even after knowing this, the irony is, the police are still on the lookout for Peter. But where?

Why #ISupportCTC?

I am not stopping with the versions of Raghu, Shakira Banu, Raveendran and Gowtham alone. There are a lot more queuing up in the social media. I am just putting these few as samples to what CTC is all about. The objective of this blog post is not about how social media behaved, but how the mainstream media should not have.

I personally witnessed how a news was cooked up right outside the former beach house of CTC. Even after knowing the bungalow was vacated long back, it was reported that they absconded only the day before. If such stories are created for an incident occurred in a distant Kurangani, what really would be the credibility of the stories that were reported from ground zero.

While in the first paragraph where I wanted to share the pride being a volunteer, I equally have to share the shame as a reporter. The situation, which already has a bigger blame game, gets into new versions because of us.

All I can say is, as media persons, it is our duty to sensitise, but not sensationalise.

- Santhosh Mathevan,
Chennai, Mar 13, 2018.

This column, 'Third Law' will feature current affairs that break out to be the news of any day. In this column, I will try to figure out and put to the public debate, the reactions of any incident that might cause some serious effects on the society. Because, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.