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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

No constitutional amendment is required for passage of a comprehensive uniform civil code. The BJP is being less than honest in its masterly inactivity even as it has campaigned tirelessly for a uniform code for extraneous reasons

Human Rights and Responsible Media

The media sets the agenda of discourse and shapes minds. What then should be the media’s own agenda?

By B G Verghese

International Human Rights Society Lecture, New Delhi, 10 December, 2013

Freedom of speech and expression, of which media freedom is a derivative, is a basic human and natural right. It is inherent in the fact of life itself. The nexus between human rights and freedom of expression is therefore obvious. However, unrestrained or motivated expression can endanger human rights as much as efforts to curb it in the name of national security can lead to censorship.

Freedom of expression encompasses the right to know and to make known events and ideas irrespective of national boundaries. Yet ideas can threaten established positions even as information empowers. The right to information has therefore come to be seen as a fundamental right that ensures sunlight and transparency and enables citizens to participate meaningfully in democratic governance.

Human rights preceded the birth of the modern media, which grew exponentially with the invention of the printing press. Means of transmission and dissemination of news developed rapidly thereafter with the advent of the steam engine and steamship, telegraph, telephone and marine cable, followed by the radio and television. This increasingly propelled human rights into an ever-widening arc of public gaze and from that developed institutions to monitor, investigate and set standards pertaining to their observance. The National Human Rights Commission, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the UN Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and similar bodies from the grassroots to the national and international level have found agency through the reach and power of dissemination and advocacy, particularly through the media.

The more recent communications revolution within our own generation has obliterated time and space, making a reality of the ideal of One World, and an Instant World at that. The chip, satellite and internet have created virtual reality. More contemporaneously, convergence and miniaturisation embodied in the cell phone have compressed the world into the palm of one hand through sound and image. The Blog, I-pad, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have followed in the form of global notice boards.

Everybody communicates with everybody else directly, unmediated, and not necessarily through the formal media. This Babel of Tongues has created what has come to be known as Social Media, which addresses not any one individual or group but society at large. More often than not, social media is not conversational as much as a public address system for whosoever cares to listen. This has its own advantages and pitfalls. It can be very satisfying to blow one’s own trumpet, but what is communicated is a personal opinion or a commentary unmediated by gatekeepers and editors, unlike what one normally expects in the print and broadcast media.

The 19th and 20th century saw the media follow a certain trajectory of growth, from voicing subjective opinion or pamphleteering to the dissemination of objective news (interspersed with editorials and commentaries), in newspapers and broadcast channels. This was a process of democratisation of the media. Social media is now moving back from purveying objective news to the posting of subjective opinions or reactions. This “personalisation” of opinion as bottled news is as lively and interesting as market gossip but can be sensational, unreliable or even downright mischievous.

This is because information has at all times had to contend with simple misinformation, a product of lazy journalism and lack of background, and, more mischievously, disinformation or the deliberate fabrication and distortion of news. Disinformation and plants by official sources or other interested parties and vested interests are not unknown in the print and broadcast media. These are most often detected and soon corrected. But once such distortions are fed into the social media they can spread virally within minutes creating a false reality that can trigger reactive responses out of anxiety, anger and fear. The consequences can sometimes be ugly as two recent examples will show.

The first episode occurred in 2012 when false reports and images of the Kokrajhar riots in the Bodo area of Assam led to considerable bloodshed and internal displacement. Using morphed pictures of some earlier incident elsewhere, this was portrayed in the social media as an attack on “outsiders” in the region thereby causing a mass exodus of Northeasterners employed or studying in Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad to their homes 1500 kilometres away, fearing reprisals. The second instance relates more recently to Muzaffarnagar in U.P where communal riots were sparked by the uploading on internet of footage of an earlier riot somewhere in Pakistan. The graphics enraged locals who were provoked to wreak vengeance on the “other”.

In both instances, the lives, human rights and safety of tens of thousands of persons were endangered by irresponsible social media reportage putting human rights at risk.

The mainstream media too has often behaved irresponsibly in subverting due process by conducting media trials. The Arushi case is illustrative. More recently, the Tehelka episode and the Justice A.K Ganguly matter saw sections of the media knitting allegations, rumour, conjecture and innuendo into facts in a competitive game of “breaking news” to garner circulation and TRP ratings. This degenerated into a witch hunt against persons whose character and reputations were damned even before investigations had commenced or concluded and whose defence was thereby subverted by public pressures stemming from the manipulation of public opinion. Political spokespersons were not averse to exploiting the situation to score brownie points against their rivals. Here again, human rights were trampled as subjective reportage based on partial information was portrayed as objective fact giving rise to hysteria and lynch campaigns.

The truth has many aspects and all these must be fairly examined and duly weighed before pronouncing definitive conclusions. The so-called Rashomon effect is something we all need to ponder. The term comes from the Kurosawa film of a Japanese drama of that name in which four people witness a crime in the clearing of a forest but have different perceptions and recall of what they heard and witnessed resulting in four different stories that are portrayed in turn. Truth-telling in journalism is likewise a many-sided phenomenon and the newsperson must investigate all sides to get to what approximates the truth as only one side many not tell us all there is to know.

The media has been a staunch defender of human rights in many ways by its exposures of mal-governance, nepotism, corruption and so forth. These constitute human rights abuses as illicit gains come at the expense of robbing or excluding others at the cost of the poor or society at large. The breakdown of the criminal justice and policing system also inflict huge human rights costs on ordinary people who are the victims of such abuse of power with the police and investigative agencies being made handmaidens of the ruling party and influential elites to protect their wrongdoings and fix their opponents. The media must keep the spotlight on these fault lines and failures as a spur to redress and reform.

Patriotism is a noble virtue, but the media must avoid the danger of ultra-nationalism or chauvinism based on the dogma “my-country-right-or-wrong”. This is the road to fascism and easily works to justify internal repression, censorship and derogation of human rights.

How then must we deal with issues of nation-building that could entail clashes of communal, linguistic, ethnic and regional identities? India has had its share of insurgencies, separatist movements and left-wing extremism. These must be fairly reported keeping in mind the human rights of dissenting elements in a very diverse and plural society which we cherish and must uphold. This may seemingly pit the media against the state which may sometimes be prone to use preventive measures. But it is important in all matters that truth must prevail, which indeed is our national motto.

While constitutional and democratic conduct, transparency and accountability are expected of the state, separatists and terrorists view themselves as being above and beyond the law. What then? Among their most diabolical weapons is the creation of a climate of fear. We have witnessed this in the Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir and in Naxal areas and during the Khalistani terrorist movement in Punjab. Fear all too easily leads to self-censorship which is a most insidious threat that both the press and people must counter. Censorship was the most potent and powerful instrument in imposing silence and submission during the notorious Emergency of 1975-77. Human rights were snuffed out. That must never be allowed to happen again.

We have now entered an era of cyber wars and electronic snooping on individuals and nations. WikiLeaks and the Snowden papers tell us of new challenges to individual and national privacy. Today technology allows the state, powerful individuals and the underworld to snoop and harass their quarry at will. New checks and balances must be established to combat these dangers, safeguard individual and national privacy and human rights even while keeping in mind the argument that such measures are needed to protect public safety and freedoms by wrongdoers.

Everywhere there are nascent pressures to regulate the media, not least to protect privacy and human rights and to maintain a societal framework conducive to good governance, social ability and the integrity of the State. Article 19(2) permits reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression under a number of heads. What is now being debated worldwide is whether this list can be expanded to in the light of newer circumstances? The Levenson Report in the UK in the wake of the News of the World scandal is being vigorously debated with the media insisting on self-regulation rather than regulation under a Royal Charter as the government would wish.

A similar debate is on in India with the broadcast media insistent on self-regulation. The print media has a Press Council which has not lived up to expectations partly owing to its flawed terms of reference and membership. Some form of independent regulation with an appellate procedure seems indicated. Apart from party organs and ideologically driven papers and channels, the media serves the general public interest. In this sense it holds a position of trust and moral responsibility that makes it a public trustee of news, informed comment and good taste. This entails an ethical and social as much as a legal responsibility. Hence failure to uphold ethical and professional standards not merely constitutes a violation of human rights but casts doubt on the credibility of the media as a human rights defender.

With media enterprises abandoning their true public service role, standards have fallen. One of India’s best known, widely circulated and profitable newspaper groups abolished the post of editor quite some years ago. Managers took over, with commerce displacing mission as the primary driving force. Competition and the pursuit of media power, coupled with rising costs and, now, market depression, have led to aberrations such as paid news, “private treaties” and similar nefarious practices. This adulteration of both media values and public life has provided entre to the underworld and other dubious elements. Despite stern warnings against the practice, the Central Election Commission detected several cases of paid news even in the just concluded assembly elections. Such perversion of the very democratic process itself makes a parody of human rights.

One antidote to such negative trends could be a genuinely autonomous public broadcasting service that could set standards and be an exemplar. Unfortunately Prasar Bharati has been emasculated by the Government, Parliament, the advertisers, entertainment world and the commercial media all of whom would prefer to see and label it an official trumpet.

The argument that Prasar Bharati is financed by the Government and that he who pays the piper calls the tune is thoroughly misplaced. It is not the Government that pays Prasar Bharati. The funding comes from the public exchequer, that is, from the people of India. The exchequer similarly supports Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, the CAG, the UPSC, the Vigilance Commission and similar bodies. This does not in the least imply that they all must, or do, forfeit their autonomy and independence.

Private commercial channels obviously have to earn their keep and therefore cater to the up-market advertiser. A public service broadcaster like Prasar Bharati is on the contrary charged with catering to the extraordinarily diverse publics of India, that is, to the common citizen so many of whom live below or scarcely above the poverty line. We must therefore remember that while all consumers are citizens, not all citizens are advertisement-relevant consumers. The tragedy is that this vital axiom has simply not been understood by our policy makers in India in this information age, when access to information empowers and enlarges democratic participation, accountability and human rights.

The media everywhere sets the agenda of discourse and shapes minds. What then should be the media’s own agenda? Apart from day to day reportage, local, regional, national and global, the media has turned the spotlight but fitfully, if at all, on many dark corners of national life though they merit close attention being constitutional promises made in the Constitution.

Let me focus on just three seminal areas where the failure of the State and Society has been abject and which the media has by and large ignored if it has cared to understand the issue in the first place. The rich and noble concept of “Fraternity and the dignity of the individual”, a foundational principle of the Constitution, has been virtually forgotten. The phrase simply does not figure in our political and social lexicon. Few remember Ambedkar’s ringing closing address to the Constituent Assembly underlining the centrality of Fraternity in the very idea of India. The term and concept were replaced by the lesser word “Secularism”, foolishly introduced into the Preamble during the Emergency in 1976. This added nothing but only detracted further from the notion of Fraternity. Secularism has thereafter been hollowed out to mean equal respect for everybody’s communalism by pandering to vote-bank politics. This has been a huge lacuna in our human rights discourse.

Secondly, the Fifth Schedule, a solemn social contract between Tribal India and the Indian State at the time of the framing of the Constitution, stands virtually side-lined or abrogated in the most brazen manner. Everybody now addresses the problem of Left Wing Extremism or Maoism as India’s most worrisome internal security threat but has no remedy to offer other than to send another battalion or dole out another monetary package to redress past “neglect”. Nobody has addressed the fact that the Fifth Schedule and PESA, the basis of tribal rights and framework of progress, have been lost through what the Supreme Court has described as “constitutional oversight”. What a travesty and huge human rights tragedy! Nothing of this appears in the media.

Thirdly, the Directive Principle, Article 44, calls the state “to endeavour to secure for citizens” a uniform civil code. Far from doing so, the State, the political parties and the media have actually opposed any action on this front by propagandising the utterly bogus and unconstitutional theory that a uniform civil code must entail abrogation of personal laws, something anathema to the orthodoxy in all faiths.

The Courts have not obstructed passage of a uniform civil code. The Special Marriage and Succession Act is itself part of a uniform civil code. Few know that Goa has a functional and comprehensive uniform civil code as a legacy of Portuguese rule.

A uniform civil code would largely impinge on wholly iniquitous existing male-dominated rights to inheritance of property under nearly all personal laws. Failure to enact a uniform code is therefore grossly inimical to gender justice and female empowerment in a patriarchal society. Further, inter-faith marriage, an aspect of Fraternity, is virtually only possible under the Special Marriage Act as most personal laws demand conversion to ensure both spouses belong to the same faith for legal recognition. Inter-caste, inter-gotra and even inter-regional marriages are dictated and disrupted by khaps and traditional procedures.

What this implies is that the day to day personal lives of citizens in our “secular” state - marriage, divorce, succession, maintenance, adoption - is determined by fundamentalist, obscurantist priests, mullahs and sants. Medievalism and superstition has been allowed to trump the Constitution and perpetuate the most disgraceful gender discrimination.

No constitutional amendment is required for passage of a comprehensive uniform civil code. The BJP is being less than honest in its masterly inactivity even as it has campaigned tirelessly for a uniform code for extraneous reasons. All the component elements of such a code are mentioned in the Concurrent List and are therefore amenable to legislation by any State. Gujarat, for instance, can legislate a uniform code for itself but has wilfully chosen not to do so. Why?

The country has spent 60 years in fatuous and irrelevant, indeed illiterate, debate on the issue of a uniform code that massively concerns human rights. Alas, the media, the women’s movement and intellectual community have preferred to be blind and deaf to what’s been blowin’ in the wind.

India can boast of a proud past. But it cannot be assured of a great future unless it addresses, earnestly and urgently, the crying issues of poverty, gross disparities, human dignity, social and criminal justice, education, health and empowerment. These are critical issues of human rights. And these must always be at the heart of the media agenda. A responsible media can and must never forget human rights.

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