Aggrieved persons and groups have the right to protest in public in order to put pressure on the government or other lesser authorities to solve problems that have not received requisite, timely attention. This is a privilege that all fair-minded citizens would not wish to deny to adversely affected persons or groups. However, if a protest is undertaken without allowing a reasonable amount of time for the relevant problem to be solved by the concerned authorities, or it calls for the diversion of scarce funds from more urgent causes, there could be many unwelcome consequences. Protests often result in great inconvenience and sometimes injury or even death to innocent members of the public. There could also be damage to public and private property, and economic losses to the State, individuals or businesses; and various other adverse outcomes. Predictably, in the case of disruptive protests, the public is not likely to be sympathetic to the demands of the protestors, negating the whole purpose of agitating publicly even if the authorities are “blackmailed” into acceding to some of the claims made on them.
If protesters were even a tenth as mindful as they should be of the trouble they cause to their fellow citizens, they would not fail to experience pangs of guilt at the sight of the long lines of buses, lorries and other vehicles brought to a complete standstill for hours in our already congested roads. They would easily form a general idea of the enormous costs of wasted fuel, impact on the environment and on the health of thousands of frustrated drivers and passengers, and so on. It is difficult to think that they could be so hard-hearted as to be immune to feeling regret for the terrible anxiety to which many hundreds of parents are subjected by not being able to get their children to school on time or to collect them from half-deserted school premises? What about the tens of thousands of hours lost by fellow-citizens in delayed journeys of every variety and degree of urgency? What about the losses that result from the waste of police resources to deal with obstacles to the free movement of traffic, injuries caused to police and protestors, damage to public and private property, and interruptions to the functioning of offices and businesses?
Too many protesting groups think nothing of the injustice to which they subject fellow citizens by recourse to unfair and unruly protests. They completely forget that the principal purpose of demonstrating in full view of the people is to gain the people’s sympathy and support to help apply greater pressure on the authorities to get their demands dealt with positively. Instead, they foolishly cause hardships to the general population in the belief that the sufferings so inflicted would force the public to complain to the authorities, who would then presumably be compelled to surrender to the protestors’ demands.
Ill-considered protests have become ever more violent in nature because the bulk of those who participate in them do so under the persuasion, importuning or threats of the principal organisers. The bulk of particpants do not know beforehand what premeditated or unplanned excesses the organisers will commit. For example, obstructing the movement of fire engines or ambulances that carry ill or injured persons for urgent medical attention is something that the average, socially-responsible protester would not wish to have happen. But too often, some irresponsible protest leaders, tend to become so intoxicated with the demagogic power that they are able to exercise over their less extreme fellow protesters that they drag the latter into acting in a manner that any decent participant would normally condemn. Too frequently, these leaders misuse their dominance recklessly without any regard for the trouble, loss, injury and anxiety caused to the public.
The media tend to sensationalise the burning of tyres; blocking of public roads with trees or protesters’ bodies and piles of miscellaneous rubbish; and the attacking of police barricades and the police themselves. The more extreme the violence, disorder and disarray that accompany a protest, the greater is the public exposure that the media grant to protest leaders, giving them the notoriety that they appear to crave more than anything else.
The media, especially TV, focus excessively on the visually destructive features of protests and to aggressive or violent language. There is rarely a reliable and reasonably comprehensive narrative published by the media that describes the beginnings of a protest and the negotiating path followed so as to allow citizens to assess whether the protest is justified or not, and whether sufficient time had been allowed for the contending parties to reach a peaceful settlement. Instead, most protests are reported on only after they have become sufficiently conflict-ridden to become “newsworthy”. The fundamental issues in contention are hardly ever examined.
It is generally accepted that the media need to perform several functions beyond merely dispensing news. They have a responsibility, inter alia, to educate, entertain and contribute to creating a better society, and also to do much more to protect the people not only from crooked politicians, administrators, businessmen and others but from wrongful actions by self-centred groups that promote mayhem in furtherance of their own interests. The single most important thing that the media should do in this connection is not to make heroes of the wrong people by giving excessive publicity to their anti-social activities. It is this wrong kind of exposure that encourages extreme positions to be taken up and promotes ruinous behaviour that is detrimental to the well-being of peace-loving citizens.
Some problems that could end up in public protests may be rendered more tractable, if the media were to take an early, proactive interest in the difficulties faced by diverse segments of the population. This could be done by devoting a certain amount of space or TV time (not after everyone has gone to sleep!) and invite groups that have grievances regarding the “deafness” of authorities to their representations to set out briefly the history of whatever they have built up as a case of justice being denied to them. This should be done before problems take on a character that ends up in unwelcome public protests.
It is our firm conviction that the media owe a duty to their readers, audiences and the general public at large not to give more space and time uncritically for what loquacious protestors say and do, than to report the far more critical topic of how members of the public suffer. Surely the stories setting out the losses and injuries of every type that are forced on law-abiding citizens are no less important than the intemperate antics of publicity-hungry protest leaders? Violent and negative aspects of protests should not be over-dramatised without simultaneously presenting to readers and viewers at least some approximate cost estimates of the losses and avoidable expenditures incurred during the protests by destructive and unproductive acts.
The editors of leading newspapers and TV programs should raise a common cry to get the government to effect the following –
a. No-one should be allowed to carry out a protest unless a stipulated process of complaining, discussing, mediating and arbitrating has been followed beforehand.
b. Even after all avenues from complaining to arbitration are exhausted, protests shall be allowed to be held only in specified, centrally-located open spaces formally identified by the authorities without overflowing onto roads and streets.
c. Declare that “lightning strikes” are illegal and urge the media not to give its participants any personal publicity.
d. Decide on those services which should be classified as “essential services” and provide effective special mechanisms to resolve disputes with the members of such services rapidly.
e. Remind the people regularly that causing inconvenience and hardship to the people by interfering with their day-to-day movements and other activities – in other words, being a public nuisance – is already a crime in the statute books.
We call upon the leaders of the media world to recognise that the severe damage that is caused to the economy cannot be controlled unless the media jointly decide that enough is enough and that the immense power they wield, when united, could have a decisive effect in cutting down on undisciplined protests that are responsible for much hardship to the people and loss to the State.