Sunday, February 7, 2010


The concept of a wide range of human rights ranging from personal to social and political rights. Several international treaties, conventions and the constitutional and legal measures recognize the human rights. Right to education , health , right to life , right to privacy, right to free speech, fair trial ,right against abuse, right to form an association, right against illegal detention, right of movement, right to information , etc., form a wide spectrum of human rights that need to be zealously protected . Media play an important role in this crusade against violation of human rights. State and non state actors resort to violation of human rights.

In a democratic society free media can be a powerful instrument against abuse and violation of human rights. In an illustrious work edited by Amartya Sen the Nobel prize winning economist makes an interesting comparison between post independent China and India. These two countries became independent almost at the same time. But, China made rapid progress in many spheres of social and economic development. But, in one area India could surpass Chinese experience. The post independent India could conquer famines. This was possible because of multi-party system and free media. The free media provide warning signals of impending crisis. These warning signals force preventive actions. Right to food is an important human right and hunger is a significant deprivation. Therefore free media can be used by human rights groups effectively in their struggle for protection of human rights. For instance in the recent case pertaining to molestation of a minor girl Ruchika, media activism could take on mighty interests that denied justice for nearly two decades. The media can come to the rescue of citizens who are denied fair trial by powerful interests.

In our country the role played by media in the struggle for protection of human rights would increase manifold in the coming days as media penetration is going to multiply. The studies done by World Association of newspapers reveal declining popularity for print and electronic media in the western world due to the onslaught of internet. But, this is not happening in India . In India ,all forms of mass media like print, Television, Radio and internet are expanding .This unprecedented expansion of mass media is likely to continue for many more decades in our country. .The multiplicity of media and its pluralism can be useful to maximize the human rights coverage in the media. However ,the homogenization of content despite pluralism is an impediment in this struggle for improving the human rights coverage. . Media is a reflection of society. . Media response to violation of human rights and media perception of human rights issues would change if the human rights movements are strengthened. But, media advocacy can maximize the coverage to human rights issues.

The media advocacy should focus on the key deficiencies in the media coverage of human rights issues. .

The structure of media itself is a big hindrance to serious and systematic coverage of human rights. Noted journalist P.Sainath who had done excellent field level coverage of poverty and deprivations referring to the absence of reporting on the poor in India says: "You see it in the simplest and most direct way: the organisation of beats. Many beats have become extinct. Take the labour correspondent: when labour issues are covered at all, they come under the header of Industrial Relations and they’re covered by business correspondents. That means they’re covered by the guy whose job is to walk in the tracks of corporate leaders and does it through the eyes of corporate leaders. Now look at the agriculture columnist — in most newspapers, the idea doesn’t exist any more. If you lack correspondents on those two beats, you’re saying 70 per cent of the people in this country don’t matter, I don’t want to talk to them."

A systematic exposure to a beat is essential to understand the gravity of the issues faced by these sections of society.

The media suffers from yet an another serious structural deficiency . The media does an excellent job of covering events . But, the media fails in covering the process that leads to an event. . In fact , the processual coverage shall prevent a crisis. When a farmer commits suicide or when a starvation death occurs , media descends on the scene of the event and covers it from all possible angles. But, a farmer suicide or a starvation death does not take place in a vacuum .Such an extreme act or a development takes place as a consequence of extreme suffering. The suffering goes unnoticed by the media. Not much professionalism is needed to cover a death . But, the media has to demonstrate creativity to unravel the suffering that causes death. This is possible only if the media has direct exposure to primary classes in society. Unfortunately freedom of press has become freedom for the rich to own the means of production and silence the poor. As a philosopher said: The class which owns the material means of production also owns the production and dissemination of ideas. This is precisely the reason why the ideas that represent the poor and under privileged largely goes un represented in the so called mainstream media. The conspiracy of silence on the issues of the poor is the result of an ideological disposition against poor and systematic deficiency in the structure of the media organizations.

The media also suffers from a deep elitist bias. This bias is blatantly clear when the human rights of the rich and the middle class are under question . Nothing wrong in upholding the rights of the privileged . But, the rights of the underprivileged should receive same attention if not greater attention. Noted economist Jayati Ghosh made this point referring to the media coverage of dengue outbreak in Delhi. Media made a big issue of this problem. As a result ,even the court intervened and pulled up the government . The victims of dengue definitely deserve such an attention in the media. But, the English media failed to show similar attention the rights of the poor to health. Many more people including the children die of malaria, cholera, diahoera etc. But, the media fail to perceive this problem unless there are sensational number of deaths. The media was so concerned because the dengue fly breeds in the luxuries of the rich and the middle class like the refrigerators, air coolers, water filters while the malaria mosquitoes breed on the dirty environs of poorer localities. The media advocacy should therefore become the voice for the voiceless. The violation of human rights of the poor are taken as a routine and a daily reality. The violation of human rights of the rich attract the huge attention of the media. The class bias in reporting the issue of human rights need to be eliminated.

The media views the violation of human rights as sporadic events and isolated happenings. But, the media fails to connect them with the social ,political processes and the economic policies that lead to violation of human rights. . This weakness is clear in reporting farmers suicides or the starvation deaths of handloom weavers or atrocities on migrant labourers or the tribal unrest. Of course, there are some notable exceptions to this mainstream trend that plagues the mass media. .

The brazen commercialisation of media, the trivialisation of the content, sensationalism etc., create a great disconnect between the media and the people. Thus, the mass media is devoid of mass reality. The media obsessed with the reality shows, personal and private lives of celebrities ignore the real lives of millions of people. Media suffers from a content disease called celebrity gauging and crime chasing syndrome. In such a media milieu, human rights coverage is an obvious casualty.

The civil society should act as a watch dog. India urgently requires a media literacy movement. A critical evaluation of media should form part of academic curriculum of schools and colleges. A grass roots social pressure would only provide a human rights perspective for the media.

Note: This is the excerpts of a lecture delivered to the students of media laws on the subject “media and human rights” at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), Hyderabad.


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