Friday, February 26, 2010

Human Rights and Media

Rajendra Bora

Although the concept of ‘Human Rights’ came into existence way back in 1948 with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration but the National Human Rights Commission came into existence in India forty-five years later, in 1993, when ‘The Protection of Human Rights Act’ was enacted by Parliament. The State Human Rights Commissions came into existence much later.

One might wonder why the enactment of law by Parliament was delayed for 45 years? It is because no such necessity was felt. Many of the Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had already found place in the Fundamental Rights in the Indian Constitution.

The Indian Constitution is one of the classical documents of its kind and has been drafted in such a systematic and simplified manner that is easy to understand, even for a layman. Than why Human Rights are being flouted so rampantly? Has the Constitution failed? No. They are the mortal being – We the People - have failed.

What is the role of media in protect the Human Rights? Media is supposed to be surrogate of the people and it is duty of media to make constitutional agencies to play their roles effectively and to make the people aware about safeguarding Human Rights which only could ensure success of democracy.

Civil societies always complain that when it comes to the reporting of the human rights-related incidents, the newspapers devote very little space to them, unless the incidents are very newsworthy and has wider importance in the judgment of editors. Newspapers seldom make a serious effort to follow up such stories, which they report with a greater zeal in the beginning.

The printed media has played a significant role in the past in reporting the violation of human rights. However, of late the printed media has been receiving stiff competition from television with the advent of news channels which, many feel, trivializing the incidents for their TRP ratings.

This competition between print and electronic media has compelled them to carve out a new kind of readership and viewership in other areas such as entertainment, cinema, fashion, cuisine, health care, real estate, environment, sports etc. While defending the latest trends, the media mogul are saying that they cater to the demands of readers and viewers. And this assertion by media owners is the real concern for those who want media to remain watchdog of human rights.

The fear that in the entire modernization and revolution process of the Indian media, human rights might take a back seat is not unfounded. This fear is further compounded due to the constant changes in the global economic pattern, which began with the introduction of the WTO.

While discussing role of media It may be questioned if media are a part of Civil Society or as something entirely outside it ?

There is, of course, no simple answer. As we all know media came in many shapes and sizes. The term Fourth Estate was, I suppose, devised because of the very fact that the media are so difficult to characterize.

Generally outside Civil Society are those media that have been established in pursuit of political power or profit and market share. But the boundaries are fuzzy.

Civil societies want media to be free from government interference and also from commercial pressure. It is expected that media go beyond political dogma and entertainment and inform the people objectively. The civil society wants the media to help create a knowledgeable, entrepreneurial and confident society which could protect human rights and which is able to address contemporary concerns of the masses.

In early eighties, a revelation made by Sunday magazine published by Anand Bazar Patrika group from Kolkata with a front page story of the blinding of prisoners in Bhagalpur Jail had virtually rocked the entire nation. This was the first major case of human rights violations ever to have been reported in Indian media, and which brought to light the alarming state of affairs in the jails.

Thereafter in mid eighties, Sheela Barse’s investigative story on the condition of exploitation and abuse of female inmates of Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai, also in Sunday, resulted in an enquiry into the condition of prisons all over Maharashtra.

That is why the media have a critical role to play. There is important job to be done by media in raising awareness about Human Rights and ensure their protection.

There is a direct link between Human Rights, democracy and development. Therefore, there is an urgent need for independent journalism and free media which provide a bedrock for democratic exchange and respect for Human Rights.

By exposing human rights, media can improve the climate of democratic debate and reduce corruption in public life.

Media sensitive to the importance of Human Rights provide reliable source of information through which citizens, human rights groups, private organizations, and public authorities can work together to promote development and eliminate arbitrary abuse of power.

For protection of Human Rights we need independent minded journalists who will play a central role. That can be ensured by bringing professionalism among journalists, editors and publishers. Since quality of sources of information are vital to the defense of human rights for all a professional media sensitive to the contemporary concerns are need of the hour.

Journalists need to work in professional and social conditions where they are free to resolve ethical dilemmas and where they can make professional decisions on editorial content. This type of editorial independence, free from governmental interference and market forces, should exist both in publicly owned and privately owned media irrespective of ownership.

This can be done by unifying the profession, by creating systems of media accountability, by imparting training to working journalists, by creating media resources by promoting respect for international standards of press freedom, and by strengthening media professional organizations.

In today’s scenario somewhere in the avalanche of information available in media we need to find a place for human rights stories.

In the first decade of new millennium we are witnessing huge concentration of economic power known as corporations. We are witnessing professionalisation and institutionalization of propaganda especially as a means for safeguarding corporate interests against democracy.

Unfortunately most members of the public rely upon the corporate media. The prime motive of the media managers is always profit maximization. If owners have multiple business lines their other interests too affect media content.

Traditionally news stories answer five questions, the five Ws : who, what, where, when and why. But corporate economic models have their own definitions. What information becomes news depends on a different set of five Ws, those asked in the market :

1. Who cares about a particular piece of information?
2. What are they willing to pay to find it, or what are others willing to pay to reach them?
3. Where can media outlets or advertisers reach these people?
4. When is it profitable to provide the information?
5. Why is this profitable.


A journalist will not explicitly consider each of these economic questions while doing a story. But the stories, reporters, firms and media that survive in the market place, however, will depend on the answers to these questions, which means media content can be modeled as if the five economic Ws are driving news decisions. This I am quoting from a recent study in United States on how the market transforms information into news.

The media has changed from being a stalwart defending public’s rights into a timid vacillating entity that all intents and purposes censors itself.

It has reduced from what it once was. The news media has morphed into something unrecognizable from what it once was.

This is not to say that the journalists within corporate media are suffering from amnesia.

The media can play a pivotal role by way of building up public opinion, and also by impressing on the government the need to incorporate the subject of human rights, both in schools and also in police training academies, and also in the training institutes for municipal councils, corporations and other revenue departments.

But the tendency of news media to follow guidelines set down by free market capitalists is a stark reality and there is blurring demarcation between journalism and entertainment from the pressure of brand managers.

Can journalists fight these odds and emerge victorious against market forces? That will decide if the media become watchdog of human rights.

(Text of the address made at a workshop on Human Rights at International College of Girls)