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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Human Rights and Media

Human Rights and Media

Anil Pinto

Dept of Media Studies, Christ College (Autonomous), Bangalore

Media has been entrusted with the responsibility of guarding the rights of the people in a democratic political system. This points towards the pivotal role that media can play in ensuring that the people who make a political system enjoy its positive outcome. However, it is important to come out of the visionary discourse of media and critically look at its role and function in our present socio-political context.

This paper tries to focus on three issues: role of media in protecting and promoting human rights, media as the cause for violation of human rights, and lastly, media as the mediator in rethinking human rights. The paper will also attempt to problematise the existing discourse of human rights and media. The word ‘media’ in this paper refers largely to mainstream media.

Media as the promoter of human rights in India

Since media are the eyes and ears of any democratic society, their existence becomes detrimental to the sustenance of all democratic societies. Unless a society knows what is happening to it and its members, the question of protecting or promoting rights does not emerge. Hence, it is in fulfilling this function that media justifies its existence.

No doubt in India, media especially the print, has played an important role in educating and informing citizens of their rights as well as the violations of such rights. One cannot forget that the origin of newspapers in India itself lay in challenging the denial of rights. Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was begun in 1780 to challenge the autocratic rule of the East India Company. Of course, James Augustus Hicky paid dearly for fighting for the rights and against their violations. In South India, The Hindu, we are given to understand, constantly attracted the wrath of the then British government, because it drew attention of the readers to the gross violation of people’s dignity and rights. In the post – independence India too the newspapers have constantly attracted the anger of and harassment by the governments for trying to take the truth to the people. Significant section of the national press has dared to oppose events that have changed the course of history in India – Emergency, Babri Masjid demolition, murder of Graham Steins and his children, the Godhra carnage, and recently Nandigram.

However, one cannot forget that for much of the press, the rights of the dalits, women, rural poor, urban poor, and workers in the unorganised sector increasingly remained outside the purview of human rights. Further, only the human rights violations by the state against the middle class became violations of human rights for media.

Media as promoter of human rights violations

Although it sounds paradoxical, it is true that contemporary media driven by numbers is increasingly becoming a cause for violations of human rights. Media is not only a witness but also a promoter of violence. The then India Today reporter Shyam Tekwani involved in covering Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations in Sri Lanka took photographs of the Indian soldiers captured and killed by the LTTE only to realise they used to mutilate the bodies because he would click the photographs. During the 1992 riots, ‘mobs’ burnt more houses and other building in order to create spectacle for the photographers. The Taliban in Afghanistan has also gone on to burn the dead bodies and mutilate them in order to get better publicity through the so called foreign journalists. A lot of child welfare NGOs in India have spoken about how European and American documentary film makers have subjected street children to inhuman conditions to get better visual impact.

Communally insensitive reporting in the name of truth has not only claimed a number of innocent human lives, but also created and perpetuated numerous stereotypes.

The way media harassed and treated Sabeel’s pregnant wife in Bangalore calls for serious reconsideration of media as fourth estate.

The above instances demand a close and serious questioning of numerous media practices which violate or cause human rights violations.

Rethinking human rights and the role of media

Contrary to the belief that human rights are an uncontested terrain, there is a vibrant history of challenging them. The questioning has been there right from the time of the conception of human rights to the post-globalised world. The momentum perhaps built up with signing of trade related treaties by the ‘developing and third word countries’ which expedited the process of globalisation and the emergence of postnational societies.

The most important critique of human rights has been, what Upendra Baxi calls, ‘authorship,’ in other words human rights have been seen as ‘the gift of the West to the rest’. He says that the while such a metanarrative has disabled ‘any intercultural, multi-civilisational discourse on the genealogy of human rights, it has also imparted ‘a loss of reflexivity in the terms of intercultural learning, for the Euro American traditions (Baxi, 2002).

Post-GATT, many thinkers see human rights as the strategy of neo-colonialism to further the economic and political interests of the ‘first’ world countries. As Susan Kosy argues “Neocolonial strategies of power are increasingly articulated … through a new universalist ethics of human rights, labor standards, environmental standards, and intellectual property rights (Koshy, 1999).”

While such claims are valid one needs to pay attention to the politics of claims which have significant consequences in the modern-day postcolonial societies. I wish to draw attention to only three such issues.

First, there are conceptual problems in the ‘authorship’ metanarrative. Such a conceptualisation denies the historical experience to a society and does not acknowledge that the present is transformed and acted upon by modernity, thereby proposing a sanitised and linear culture, denying the plurality of culture and societies. By so doing, such claims also land them into the same trap of non-self-reflexivity that they accuse the West of. Through such claims there is also a greater danger of hampering inter-cultural learning for a culture. The claim also does not take into account the fact that with the eleventh hour exit by the US from being a part of shaping UDHR, the UDHR became socialist in its outlook, incorporating many a concern of the third world nations.

Second, it is important to see who is articulating such claims. In the last two decades one notices that such claims have been increasingly voiced by Hindutva organisations in India, and dictatorial regimes in the neighbouring countries in Asia and Africa which have a record of human rights violations themselves. Baxi says, “the originary stories about human rights equip dictatorial regimes in the Third World to deny wholesale, and in retail, even the most minimal protection from human rights violations and serves such regimes with an atrocious impunity of power (Baxi, 2002). In India such claims hide the pre- and post - independent nationalist politics of creating a homogenous Hindu identity, at the cost numerous communities and cultures within the subcontinent. This also masks the larger political equation that Nandi and many other scholars have pointed out of -Indian =Hindu = upper caste male Hindu.

Third, human rights discourse emerges in the mid-twentieth century in the background of the experience of the two World Wars, the fear of nation-states exploiting their subjects. However, with globalisation multinational corporations becoming more powerful than nation-states, shouldn’t there be a serious rethinking of human rights? If one has a look at the instances of protest against violations of human rights in India, they have largely been against the violations of human rights by the state. However, there is hardly any protest against the violation of human rights by the MNCs, who are mostly invisible in our imagination of human rights violations.

It is in this context that I propose for the media a newer role. Media needs to develop a critique of existing frameworks human rights, and develop a plural and more nuanced discourse of human rights in the public domain.

Rethinking media

Media has largely become mass information rather than mass communication. Media needs to communicate with the governments, NGOs, human rights activists and the public the critical discourse of human rights and the violations. May be a paradigm shift is required to look at media communication as community interaction rather than mass communication. Such a shift would then justify the sacred role that media has been called upon to play. If the media does not take up the role of enabling protection of human rights of the citizens, then it would become an accomplice to the violation of human rights.

However, since media cannot be completely trusted, thanks to the changes brought about by the economic and political developments, especially post liberalisation, we need to strengthen advocacy groups, citizen groups and media watch groups.

Due to various historical reasons our imagination of media has largely been dominated by print media. With print media increasingly losing its foothold in forming public opinion, there is a pressing need to look at recent developments in new media, especially the cyberspace, and mobile phone convergence and the consequent possibilities, to engage with discourses of human rights through these media.

Media is increasingly getting concentrated in the hands of a few. While such a concentration will reduce media spaces for plural voices, they also make such voices look non-significant. With media becoming and industry, and profits becoming a priority, audience, who are increasingly referred to as ‘eyeballs,’ become merely numbers to determine the amount of advertisement revenue that will flow into the organisation.

While media has played a significant role in the promoting the cause of human rights in India, it has largely been by the print medium. There is an increasing need for the various other media which have emerged post-independence to also engage with the discourse of human rights. This calls for a departure from our own obsession with print medium as the medium, with marginal inclusion of news-based television channels. There is also a critical need to engage with and problematise the present binary discourse of human rights as well as the conception of mass media. An inquiry and experimentation with alternative ownership and communication patterns of media are also the need of the hour.


Baxi, Upendra. “Two Notions of Human Rights: ‘Modern’ and ‘Contemporary’” in The Future of Human Rights. New Delhi: OUP, 2002. 24-27

Koshy, Susan. “From Cold War to Trade War: Neocolonialism and Human Rights” in Social Text No 58 (Spring, 1999) Duke University Press. 1-5

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